Understanding retirement accounts

There are many types of accounts that can help you save for a lengthy retirement — and most people rely on more than one account to reach their retirement goals. Understanding the features and benefits of each will make it easier to choose the right ones.

Employer-sponsored plans with employee contributions

A good starting point for retirement saving is your employer-sponsored plan. Employer plans usually accept automatic contributions from your paycheck, and the money you contribute has the potential to grow tax-deferred.

In addition, if your employer offers to match your plan contributions, you should consider taking full advantage of this opportunity. An employer match will supplement your savings without any extra effort on your part. If you’re not sure if you have an employer match, you can ask your HR or benefits department for your employer summary plan description.

401(k) plan
403(b) plan
Governmental 457(b)
Which type of employer can offer the plan?
For-profit or nonprofit organizations
501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations and public schools
Any state or local government entity
For-profit, nonprofit or government organizations with fewer than 100 employees
Who is eligible to participate? (Some employers may be less restrictive)
Employees age 21 or above, with at least one year of service
Generally, all employees are eligible
Eligibility is generally at the employer’s discretion
Employees with at least $5,000 of compensation in any two previous years of service and who anticipate compensation of at least $5,000 in the current year
How much of your salary can you contribute for 2020?
$19,500, or $26,000 if you are age 50 or above
$19,500, or $26,000 if you are age 50 or above (additional catch-up contributions may also be available)
$19,500, or $26,000 if you are age 50 or above (additional catch-up contributions may also be available)
$13,500, or $16,500 if you are age 50 or above
Additional considerations
May have a loan provision
May have a loan provision
May have a loan provision
No loan provision
Roth 401(k) contributions may be allowed
Roth 403(b) contributions may be allowed
Roth 457 contribution may be allowed
No Roth contribution option
Employer match may be available
Employer match may be available
Employer match may be available
Additional employer contributions required
10% IRS penalty on early withdrawals (exceptions apply)
10% IRS penalty on early withdrawals (exceptions apply)
No penalty on early withdrawals
25% penalty on early withdrawals for the first two years, 10% penalty thereafter (exceptions apply)

Pre-Tax vs. Roth deferrals

Some employer plans offer you the option to make Roth 401(k) or Roth 403(b) contributions instead of the standard pre-tax contribution to your 401(k) or 403(b) account. Determining which contribution option to choose depends in part on your tax bracket now and in retirement, in addition to the amount of time you have before you retire.

  • Pre-tax contribution. When you make a pre-tax contribution to a retirement plan, you receive a tax benefit right away, but you will have to pay taxes on the money when you withdraw it. In general, a person in a higher tax bracket who anticipates being in a lower tax bracket at retirement may find a pre-tax deferral more favorable.
  • Roth contribution. You won’t receive a current tax benefit, but qualified distributions are tax-free in retirement. In general, a person in a lower tax bracket who anticipates being in a higher tax bracket in retirement may find a Roth contribution more favorable.

There are other factors to consider as well so be sure to talk with your Ameriprise financial advisor and tax professional before making a decision.

Employer-funded plans

Some employers offer plans where all eligible employees automatically benefit, without having to make contributions from their salary. Even though you do not need to personally contribute to these plans, you’ll still need to select beneficiaries, may need to choose the investments and will want to factor them into your overall plan for retirement.

Profit sharing
Pension/defined benefit
Which type of employer can offer this plan?
Primarily for-profit organizations, though nonprofits and government employers may also establish
For-profit, nonprofit or government organizations
For-profit, nonprofit or government organizations
Who is eligible to participate?
(Some employers may be less restrictive)
Employees with two years and at least 1,000 hours of service per year, if there is immediate vesting (with a vesting schedule, one year and 1,000 hours of service)
Employees age 21 or above who perform service in at least three of the prior five plan years, and who receive at least a required minimum amount of compensation in the current year ($600 in 2020)
Employees with one year and 1,000 hours of service
What is the maximum that can be contributed for 2020?
100% of compensation, up to $57,000 (employer’s deduction is capped at 25% of eligible payroll)
25% of compensation, up to $57,000
Contributions must not exceed the amount required to fund the maximum annual benefit (For 2020, the lesser of $230,000 or 100% of average compensation for highest three consecutive years)
Additional features
Loans may be available
No loan provisions
Loans are allowed but typically not available
May have a vesting schedule
Immediate vesting
May have a vesting schedule
Employer contributions are discretionary
Employer contributions are discretionary
Employer contributions are mandatory
Employee typically directs investments
Employee always directs investments
Employer directs investments

Individual retirement accounts (IRAs)

If you’re already participating in an employer-sponsored plan but are able to save more, or if you don’t have access to an employer plan, you should consider contributing to an IRA. IRAs allow you to hold a wide variety of investment and offer different tax benefits depending on your income level and the type of IRA you select.

Traditional IRAs can offer a particular tax advantage if you expect to be in a lower tax bracket when you retire. If you qualify for pre-tax contributions, your current taxes may be reduced and the taxes you pay when you withdraw the money may be less than you would pay now. However, as you consider a traditional IRA, keep in mind that at age 72 you must take required minimum distributions (RMDs)

A Roth IRA may be an advantageous way for you to invest if you are in a lower tax bracket, especially if you anticipate being in a higher tax bracket in retirement. The earnings in your Roth IRA are tax-free upon withdrawal (if certain requirements are met). This can be a powerful advantage. Assuming that you expect your tax bracket to be higher in retirement than it is now, there may be a significant benefit to giving up the current tax deduction and making do with less today in order to gain the tax-free growth and withdrawal.

Traditional IRA
Roth IRA
Who is eligible to make contributions?

Individuals with earned income

Non-working spouses of individuals with earned income

There is no age limit for contributions made for the 2020 tax year or later due to the SECURE Act changes

Individuals of any age with earned income (subject to modified adjusted gross income limits)

Non-working spouses of individuals with earned income (subject to modified adjusted gross income limits); no age limits

What is the maximum you can contribute for 2020? (Limits apply to combined Traditional and Roth contributions)
Lesser of $6,000 ($7,000 if you are age 50 or above) or 100% of earned income
Lesser of $6,000 ($7,000 if you are age 50 or above) or 100% of earned income
How are contributions and distributions (withdrawals) taxed?

Contributions may be tax-deductible, depending on whether or not you or your spouse have a retirement plan at work and your modified adjusted gross income.

Any growth from contributions will be tax-deferred until withdrawn.

Distributions of pre-tax contributions and earnings are taxed at your ordinary income tax rate, but are not subject to the 3.8% tax on net investment income.

Contributions are non-deductible.

Earnings are income tax- and penalty-free if:

  1. Distributed five years or more from the first day of the first year that funds were first contributed or converted to any Roth IRA for the individual, and
  2. At least one of the following applies: age 59½, death, disability, first-time home purchase (up to $10,000).
Additional considerations

Required minimum distributions beginning at age 72.

Distributions to an individual who has non-deductible contributions in any of his or her IRAs will consist of taxable and non-taxable amounts on a pro rata basis.

Distributions of taxable amounts prior to age 59½ are subject to a 10% IRS penalty (exceptions apply).

No required minimum distributions.1

Contributions are distributed first and are always non-taxable.

Early withdrawals of earnings may be subject to tax and a 10% IRS penalty if distributed prior to age 59½ (exceptions apply).

1Inherited Roth IRAs are subject to required minimum distributions

There are other factors to take into account as well so be sure to talk with your financial advisor and tax professional before making a decision about what IRA is right for you.

More ways to save

While employer-sponsored plans and IRAs offer important opportunities for retirement savings, they may not be enough to provide the retirement you want. Personal savings will likely play a critical role in funding your retirement as well. It is important to think about all of the vehicles available as you plan for a secure retirement.

Take the next step

An Ameriprise financial advisor can help identify which accounts are right for you, and allocate investments to each account. As your needs and circumstances change over time, your financial advisor will adjust your plan to help ensure you stay on track.


Ameriprise Financial, Inc. and its affiliates do not offer tax or legal advice. Consumers should consult with their tax advisor or attorney regarding their specific situation.
Ameriprise Financial Services, Inc. Member FINRA and SIPC.

5 financial mistakes to avoid

1. Putting all your (nest) eggs in one basket

A well-diversified portfolio allows the positive performance of some investments to balance out the poor performance of others. This mix of investments in different asset classes (e.g., stocks, bonds, real estate) can help keep your retirement goals on track even when one investment experiences a rocky period. Diversification is especially important as you near retirement because you have fewer years of income to rebuild savings if some investments post losses.

Your financial advisor can recommend diversification strategies based on your goals, time horizon and risk tolerance. To help you remain on course, your advisor will connect with you regularly to review your progress and your portfolio.

2. Leaving your estate plan for your heirs to figure out

You can make things much easier for your loved ones in the future by talking through estate planning today. Your advisor can work with you and your estate planning attorney to make sure that your financial wishes will be carried out when you die.

Estate planning includes:

  • Creating your will and/or trusts
  • Documenting your health care directive and power of attorney designation
  • Ensuring that your beneficiary designations are up to date for all your financial accounts, including retirement accounts, annuities and insurance
  • Keeping a list of all your online accounts and passwords in a secure place that your attorney or beneficiaries can access quickly if needed

Your advisor will provide you with personalized advice that aligns with a comprehensive estate plan, and will help bring your family members together for the sometimes-difficult discussions.

3. Waiting too long to think about health care needs

Protecting your assets means planning carefully for health care needs, including the expected and the unexpected. The first step is to make sure you have enough medical coverage, plus a long-term care strategy.

The process begins by finding out which Medicare benefits you’ll be eligible for down the road and researching options for supplemental insurance. For example, hybrid life insurance policies combine life insurance with long-term care benefits that may help you pay for the costs of a nursing home, assisted living or in-home care — expenses Medicare does not cover. In general, these hybrid policies may be more affordable than traditional long-term care policies.

4. Maintaining 401(k) accounts in multiple places

If you’ve changed jobs several times during your career, you might have multiple 401(k)s at different employers. It may make sense to consolidate some of these accounts — but before you do, discuss a few critical factors with your advisor:

  • The investment options for each account
  • Your risk tolerance and time horizon
  • The right balance between taxable and tax-deferred accounts
  • How you’ll take distributions when you need them
  • Whether to leave savings in your former employer’s qualified retirement plan if you have employer stock that has grown significantly in value

You might be able to roll your 401(k) savings into an IRA, an option that may provide you with greater control of your retirement assets and more growth potential while maintaining tax benefits. Consolidating your retirement savings can also help you and your advisor plan more strategically for retirement.

5. Paying too much in taxes

Does it make sense to pay taxes now to lessen your future tax liability? Could charitable gifts lower your taxable income? Are there tax deductions you’re not using to your advantage? Your financial advisor and tax professional can work together to help you create a tax strategy for your evolving investment choices.

Schedule a retirement check-in

Wondering whether there are other steps you could be taking — or not taking — to help ensure a confident retirement? Working together with you throughout the year, your Ameriprise financial advisor can help you navigate your options and stay on course to achieve your financial goals.

Your goals are individual. We believe financial advice should be too.

Confidence in your financial future begins with confidence in your financial advisor.




Diversification can help protect against certain investment risks, but does not assure a profit or protect against loss.
Be sure you understand the potential benefits and risks of an IRA rollover before implementing. As with any decision that has tax implications, you should consult with your tax advisor prior to implementing an IRA rollover.
Ameriprise Financial, Inc. and its affiliates do not offer tax or legal advice. Consumers should consult with their tax advisor or attorney regarding their specific situation.
Ameriprise Financial cannot guarantee future financial results.
Ameriprise Financial Services, Inc. Member FINRA and SIPC.

How tax diversification can fuel your savings goals

Tax season is an opportune time for you and your financial advisor to review the tax treatment of your retirement assets. Strategically distributing your assets among three tax categories can help you keep more money in your pocket. 

This category includes:

  • 401(k)3,11, 403(b)and 457(b) defined contribution plans
  • Traditional IRAs3,6,10
  • Pension plans3
  • Deferred annuities3

The majority of U.S. retirement assets are held in tax-deferred employer plans, which offer the benefits of pre-tax contributions (lowering your annual taxable income) and tax-free growth to accumulate more savings for retirement.

Beginning at age 59 1/2, your withdrawals are taxed as ordinary income, but you won’t pay the 10% early withdrawal penalty.

While it’s wise to take advantage of available employer contributions and annual tax savings, funding your future exclusively with tax-deferred investments can result in a heavier tax burden in retirement.

This category includes:

  • Roth IRAs1,3
  • Municipal bonds/funds2
  • 529 savings plans8
  • Cash-value life insurance policies1,9

Consider some tax-free investments, especially if you expect to be in a higher tax bracket in retirement. You generally won’t pay taxes on withdrawals if certain requirements are met.

Because these investment vehicles aren’t subject to annual required minimum distributions, you can accumulate tax-free earnings for as long as you like.

This category includes:

  • Bank accounts5
  • Brokerage accounts
  • After-tax mutual funds

Taxable assets help support your cash management strategy. Accumulating one to three years of living expenses in liquid assets can help you ride out volatility in a down market without selling other investments at a loss.

While the earnings and sale of taxable assets are subject to current taxes, you may be able to receive preferential tax treatment on long-term capital gains and qualified dividends.

We can help

Meet with your tax and financial advisors to implement a tax-diversification strategy. Doing so could provide you with greater financial flexibility and control today and increase your income in retirement.


Necessary requirements must be met. Consult with your tax advisor.
2 Certain tax-exempt income may be subject to the alternative minimum tax, or state or local taxes. Taxable capital gains or losses may be incurred.
Withdrawal before age 59½ may result in a 10% IRS penalty on taxable earnings.
4 Dividends and long-term capital gains may be taxed at a lower rate. Interest may be taxable even if not received, for example, if from a CD or OID. For certain short-term debt instruments, interest is taxed at maturity.
5 Bank deposits are FDIC insured up to $250,000 per depositor.
6 Funded with after-tax dollars.
7 May elect to tax increase in value currently.
8 When used for qualified higher education expenses; otherwise, you may have to pay income tax plus a 10% penalty to the extent of earnings.
9 Death proceeds generally are not subject to income tax. Loans from a non-Modified Endowment Contract (MEC) policy are not subject to income tax unless the contract lapses or is surrendered. Loans from an MEC policy are subject to income tax to the extent that there is gain in the policy. Partial or full surrenders from a life insurance contract may be subject to income tax to the extent of earnings.
10 Assumes that contributions to the IRA are deductible.
11 Special rules apply to appreciated employer securities in qualified retirement plans.
Ameriprise Financial, Inc. and its affiliates do not offer tax or legal advice. Consumers should consult with their tax advisor or attorney regarding their specific situation.
Ameriprise Financial Services, Inc. Member FINRA and SIPC

Market volatility: Keeping market moving headlines in perspective to achieve your goals

During your busy day, an alert sounds on your smartphone with geopolitical news that could affect your investments. You might wonder about the potential impact to your portfolio and how much time you have to react — or whether you should react.

Current market headlines: News or noise?

Is it news or just noise? Columbia Threadneedle Investments Global Chief Investment Officer Colin Moore helps clarify daily market headlines. (0:39)

By working with your Ameriprise advisor, your decisions can better reflect the goals, risk tolerance and time horizon you factored into your investment strategy at the outset and as you’ve adjusted along the way.

A well-diversified portfolio can offer you the perspective and time to make objective, goal-focused decisions. By looking beyond the headlines and the emotions they can provoke, you could potentially limit the negative impact to your long-term investments.

Think long-term

Sound investment decisions are based on informed and rational reactions to financial updates and analysis, not just the headlines. However, keeping news in perspective can be easier said than done. Our hyper-connected world continuously informs us of developments that may cause us to panic, even when we’ve built a well-planned investment strategy with a financial advisor. “Most of what we get today in the news is just noise,” says Colin Moore, global chief investment officer at Columbia Threadneedle Investments. “It’s not a material change in economic direction, and therefore you shouldn’t really be reacting to it.”

While daily headlines and news can give the impression that short-term events have a large impact on your portfolio, it’s important to keep headlines in perspective. What happens at one moment in time could reverse or materially shift just a few weeks or months later. For example:

  • In the first eight weeks of 2019, the technology, energy and industrials sectors generated the best performance out of the 11 sectors that make up the S&P 500 Index.
  • However, these sectors were the worst-performing segments of the market during the severe equity market sell-off during the fourth quarter of 2018 — arguably fueled by fears of a recession, higher interest rates and trade tensions.

When should you respond to market-moving headlines?

Most big news events don’t have a large impact on the global economy, even if they’re a cause of significant short-term turmoil — but some do.

When you’re unsure about whether a portfolio adjustment is warranted, begin by asking yourself three questions. If the answer is yes to any of these questions, there could be a longer-term effect on asset values. If the answer is no, the news story — and its effect on your portfolio — will most likely pass.

  • Is a superpower involved? If the one of the top five — the United States, Russia, China, Germany, United Kingdom — is involved or has the potential to be quickly drawn into a situation, there’s potential for longer-term concern.
  • Is there a risk to oil prices? Oil is the most important commodity in the world, providing fuel that keeps industry and transportation systems moving and economies growing. Prices could spike upward if turmoil causes a significant disruption to supply.
  • Is there a risk to the global financial system? The global economy could begin to seize up if an event looks likely to undermine confidence in systemically important banks. Also watch for whether key global currencies and banks can’t take deposits, lend money, facilitate payments or support cross-border trade.

Check your investment goals and strategy regularly

When a headline concerns you, remain grounded and realistic by asking yourself:

  • “Will my investment objectives be materially affected by ups and downs in the market?”
  • “Am I still comfortable with the amount of diversification and risk in my portfolio?”
  • “Do I have time to recover losses before I begin using my investments for retirement income?”

Partner with your advisor

During a period of market movement, talk with your Ameriprise advisor to see if any action is needed. Your advisor can help you make objective decisions based on your long-term financial goals and a diversified investment strategy. Together, you can cut through the noise of news headlines and stay on track to achieve your goals.d stay on track to achieve your goals.


This information is being provided only as a general source of information and is not intended to be the primary basis for investment decisions. It should not be construed as advice designed to meet the particular needs of an individual investor. Please seek the advice of a financial advisor regarding your particular financial concerns.
Diversification does not assure a profit or protect against loss. Investing involves risk including the risk of loss of principal.
Ameriprise Financial Services, Inc. Member FINRA and SIPC.

3 strategies to help reduce investment risk

History shows that when people invest and stay invested, they’re more likely to earn positive returns in the long run. When markets start to fluctuate, it may be tempting to make financial decisions in reaction to changes to your portfolio. But people who base their financial decisions on emotion often end up buying when the market is high and selling when prices are low. These investors ultimately have a harder time reaching their long-term financial goals.

How can you avoid making these common investing mistakes? Consider these investment strategies, which can help you reduce the risks associated with investing and potentially earn more consistent returns over time.

Strategy 1: Asset allocation

Appropriate asset allocation refers to the way you weight the investments in your portfolio to try to meet a specific objective — and it may be the single most important factor in the success of your portfolio. 

For instance, if your goal is to pursue growth, and you’re willing to take on market risk to reach that goal, you may decide to place as much as 80% of your assets in stocks and as little as 20% in bonds. Before you decide how you’ll divide the asset classes in your portfolio, make sure you know your investment timeframe and the possible risks and rewards of each asset class.

Risks and rewards of major asset classes


  • Can carry a high level of market risk over the short term due to fluctuating markets
  • Historically earn higher long-term returns than other asset classes
  • Generally outpace inflation better than most other investments over the long term


  • Generally have less severe short-term price fluctuations than stocks and therefore offer lower market risk
  • Can preserve principal and tend to provide lower long-term returns and have higher inflation risks over time
  • Bond prices are likely to fall when interest rates rise (if you sell a bond before it matures, you may get a higher or lower price than you paid, depending on the direction of interest rates)

Money market instruments

  • Among the most stable of all asset classes in terms of returns, money market instruments carry low market risk (managers of these securities try to keep the per-share price at $1 and distribute returns as dividends)
  • Generally don’t have the potential to outpace inflation by a large margin
  • Not insured or guaranteed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation or any other government agency (there’s no guarantee that any fund will maintain a stable $1 share price)

Different asset classes offer varying levels of potential return and market risk. For example, unlike stocks and corporate bonds, government T-bills offer guaranteed principal and interest — although money market funds that invest in them do not. As with any security, past performance doesn’t necessarily indicate future results. And asset allocation does not guarantee a profit.

Strategy 2: Portfolio diversification

Asset allocation and portfolio diversification go hand in hand. 

Portfolio diversification is the process of selecting a variety of investments within each asset class to help reduce investment risk. Diversification across asset classes may also help lessen the impact of major market swings on your portfolio.

How portfolio diversification works

If you were to invest in the stock of just one company, you’d be taking on greater risk by relying solely on the performance of that company to grow your investment. This is known as “single-security risk” — the risk that your investment will fluctuate widely in value with the price of one holding. 

But if you instead buy stocks in 15 or 20 companies in several different industries, you can reduce the potential for a substantial loss. If the return on one investment is falling, the return on another may be rising, which may help offset the poor performer.

Keep in mind, this doesn’t eliminate risk, and there is no guarantee against investment loss.

Strategy 3: Dollar-cost averaging

Dollar-cost averaging is a disciplined investment strategy that can help smooth out the effects of market fluctuations in your portfolio.

With this approach, you apply a specific dollar amount toward the purchase of stocks, bonds and/or mutual funds on a regular basis. As a result, you purchase more shares when prices are low and fewer shares when prices are high. Over time, the average cost of your shares will usually be lower than the average price of those shares. And because this strategy is systematic, it can help you avoid making emotional investment decisions.

How dollar-cost averaging might work in rising and declining markets

In the illustration below, the cost of the investment ranges between $10 and $25 from January through April. A fixed monthly investment of $100 buys as many as 10 shares when the price is lowest but only four shares when the price is highest. In this example, dollar-cost averaging results in a lower average share price during the period, while the market average price — for someone who bought an equal number of shares each month — is higher.

Dollar-cost averaging at $100 per month

Rising market
When the price is
You buy
Declining market
When the price is
You buy

Your Ameriprise financial advisor can help you feel more confident about your financial future, so discuss these strategies with your advisor to see if they may be right for you.


Asset allocation, diversification and dollar-cost averaging do not assure a profit or protect against loss.
Investment products are not federally or FDIC-insured, are not deposits or obligations of, or guaranteed by any financial institution, and involve investment risks including possible loss of principal and fluctuation in value.
There are risks associated with fixed income investments, including credit risk, interest rate risk, and prepayment and extension risk. In general, bond prices rise when interest rates fall and vice versa. This effect is usually more pronounced for longer-term securities.
Stock investments have an element of risk. High-quality stocks may be appropriate for some investments strategies. Ensure that your investment objectives, time horizon and risk tolerance are aligned with stocks before investing, as they can lose value.
Ameriprise Financial Services, Inc. Member FINRA and SIPC.

5 types of investment fraud to watch out for

Seniors lose $36.4 billion each year to financial abuse — $16.8 billion of which comes from deceptive investing tactics designed specifically to take advantage of older Americans.¹ Also known as “financial exploitation,” this type of investment fraud is defined by the use of misleading language to obtain account information and permission to access the victim’s money.

According to the National Council on Aging, investment fraud targeting seniors has become so widespread that it’s now considered “the crime of the 21st century.”² While financial scams often go unreported, they can be devastating to older Americans who have less time to make up for losses. 

Retirees are particularly vulnerable to investing scams because they often have large amounts of money saved, and “get rich quick” schemes can be appealing to those on a fixed income.

The first step to protecting yourself — or a parent — from investing scams is knowing which red flags to look for.

Here are the five most common types of fraud:

Pyramid scheme

Also known as a Ponzi scheme, this involves using money from new investors to provide a return — often much higher than typical market gains — to existing investors rather than using legitimate investment returns. Ponzi schemes fall apart when the money owed to the initial investors becomes greater than the amount that can be raised from new investors. Pyramid scheme operators may reach out via phone, email or word of mouth.

What to watch for: If investment returns seem too good to be true, they probably are. If in doubt, request documentation such as a fund prospectus or the most recent annual report. These may help provide more context for investors — or raise suspicions if they aren’t readily available for review. If you’re not sure, talk to your advisor before making any moves. 

Pump and dump scheme

This involves a group of people buying a stock then recommending it to thousands of investors. The result? A rapid spike in stock price followed by an equally fast downfall. The perpetrators who bought the stock sell off their shares at a huge profit when the price peaks. Pump and dump schemes often circulate on internet investing blogs, or you may receive a promotional email.

What to watch for: Smaller, lesser-known companies are more likely to be used in this scheme because it’s easier to manipulate a stock when there’s little or no information available about the company.

Targeting seniors has become so widespread that it’s now considered “the crime of the 21st century.”– National Council on Aging

Off-shore investing fraud

The internet has eroded barriers that once made it difficult for overseas fraudsters to prey on U.S. residents. Conflicting time zones, the cost of international telephone calls and differing currencies are no longer an obstacle — and international wire transfers can occur instantaneously. Phone calls are a common method of communication for the perpetrators, enabling real-time wire transfers to be made before victims have time to do any research.

What to watch for: Investment opportunities originating in a country that is outside the jurisdiction of local U.S. law enforcement agencies. Ask for legal documentation stating where the funds are registered.

Prime bank scams

Used in an official capacity, this term describes the top 50 or so banks in the world. Real prime banks often trade high-quality, low-risk investments such as bonds. Fraudsters often claim investors’ funds will be used to purchase “prime bank” investments that they claim will generate significant gains. Because these investments usually don’t exist, investors are unlikely to see their money again.

What to watch for: The term “prime bank” is often used by perpetrators looking to lend legitimacy to their scheme, whereas real prime banks that are easily located through a Google search are able to rely on name recognition alone.

Bulletin boards and newsletter money scams

Investment boards have gone the way of online blogs, where nearly anyone can offer an opinion no matter how qualified they are — or aren’t. While there may be some valid posts by financial experts, perpetrators often use boards to plant fake “insider” tips meant to drive stock prices up or down. Know that company employees can also use blogs to spread promotional information, and it’s not illegal for companies to use employees to write online newsletters to promote their stock.

What to watch for: Federal laws require that disclosures with legally-required details about their offerings are located at the bottom of documents on company-generated information. Fraudulent newsletters are unlikely to provide such language.

Talk to us first to protect yourself from fraud

Not sure an investment you’re interested in is the real thing? It’s wise not to make any sudden moves. Your advisor can help determine whether it’s legitimate or explore alternative investments with you.


¹True Link Financial, “The True Link Report on Elder Financial Abuse 2015”: http://documents.truelinkfinancial.com/True-Link-Report-On-Elder-Financial-Abuse-012815.pdf
²National Council on Aging, “Top 10 Financial Scams Targeting Seniors”: https://www.ncoa.org/economic-security/money-management/scams-security/top-10-scams-targeting-seniors/
Ameriprise Financial Services, Inc. Member FINRA and SIPC.

When should you start collecting Social Security?

Social Security is often associated with a retirement program, but you can use your benefits for other reasons. If you become disabled, you may use Social Security, or if you lose a family member, you may be eligible for survivor benefits. 

Learn more about Social Security benefits for you and your family

TOOL: IRA Rollover Evaluator

Should I roll over to an IRA?

Rollover evaluator

If you have multiple retirement savings accounts held in more than one place as a result of job changes or other personal circumstances, the rollover evaluator will help you understand the pros and cons of keeping your retirement savings in an employer-sponsored plan such as a 401(k) or 403(b) versus rolling it over into an IRA.

Get Started

Medicare facts and coverage gaps

Grandfather carries his grandson on piggy back while they walk through the field in the nature during the sunset

Planning ahead for health care expenses is essential. Determining how much you’ll need, however, depends on a variety of factors. Your costs will vary based on your income, age, health, location, your Medicare or supplemental plans and life expectancy.

Review the information below to learn how you and your family can prepare for the future.

Evaluating retirement health care costs

The financial impact of dealing with a serious illness can be devastating, and even everyday medical expenses such as prescription drug costs and routine medical services can add up over time. Planning now can help ensure you have enough money to pay for healthcare throughout retirement.

The amount of savings needed for health expenses for people eligible for Medicare, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI)1:

  • Medicare beneficiaries pay a share of their health expenses out-of-pocket because of program deductibles and other cost-sharing. In 2015, Medicare covered 60 percent of the cost of healthcare services for Medicare beneficiaries ages 65 and older, while out-of-pocket spending accounted for 12 percent, and private insurance covered 15 percent.
  • In 2018, a 65-year-old man with median prescription drug expenses needs $75,000 in savings and a 65-year-old woman needs $99,000 if each has a goal of having a 50 percent chance of having enough money saved to cover health care expenses in retirement. If either instead wants a 90 percent chance of having enough savings, $148,000 is needed for a man and $161,000 is needed for a woman. This analysis does not factor in the savings needed to cover long-term care expenses.
  • Savings targets increased between 2 percent and 13 percent since 2017. For a married couple both with drug expenses at the 90th percentile throughout retirement who want a 90 percent chance of having enough money saved for health care expenses in retirement by age 65, targeted savings would be $399,000 in 2018.

According to the EBRI, this information is based on dollars needed for Medigap premiums, Medicare Part B premiums, Medicare Part D premiums and out-of-pocket drug expenses for retirement at age 65 in 2017. 


Introduction to Medicare

Medicare is a federal health insurance program that provides coverage for people age 65 and older, and for some disabled people under age 65. The program consists of four parts, each of which covers different health-related expenses.

The different parts of Medicare

Medicare Part A
Medicare Part B
Medicare Part C
Medicare Part D
Hospital Insurance
Medical Insurance
Medicare Advantage
Prescription Drug Plan
Helps pay for in-patient care in a hospital, skilled nursing facility (following a hospital stay), some home health care and hospice care
Helps cover services like lab tests, surgeries, and doctor visits in addition to supplies like wheelchairs and walkers that are considered medically necessary to treat a disease or condition.
Allows you to participate in PPO-, PFFS, and HMO-type managed care plans
Helps pay for medications prescribed by doctors
No premium if you and your spouse paid Medicare taxes during 40 or more quarters
Optional coverage
If you are enrolled in Medicare Part A and Part B, you are eligible to switch to Part C
Pays outpatient drug care costs
Requires a monthly premium payment for all participants2
Requires a monthly premium payment for all participants3
Deductible and cost-sharing limits may apply. In the coverage gap stage, there are different cost sharing percentages for brand name vs. generic drugs

Several types of Part C plans are available, including:

  • Preferred Provider Organization (PPO). This plan allows you to see any doctor or specialist; however, visiting doctors outside your PPO network will involve extra costs.
  • Health Maintenance Organization (HMO). You have access to doctors in the HMO network only.
  • Private Fee-for-Service (PFFS). You can see any doctor who is willing to accept the fees and terms of the PFFS.
  • Special Needs. These plans are intended for people with certain chronic diseases or special health care needs.
  • Medical Savings Account (MSA). This plan includes a high-deductible health insurance plan and a savings account in which Medicare deposits money for you to use for health care costs.

Enrolling in Medicare

If you are already receiving Social Security, you are automatically enrolled in Medicare at age 65. If you want to enroll in Medicare but are not taking (or not eligible for) Social Security, you can enroll three months before the month of your 65th birthday and the three months after. For example, if your birthday is March 15, you can apply anytime from November through the end of June.

Medigap and Medicaid

Medicare is only one of the sources of health care coverage available to retirees. You may also be eligible for Medigap or Medicaid.

Individuals enrolled in Medicare Parts A and B are also eligible to purchase Medigap coverage from insurance companies.
Individuals with limited income and resources who meet certain requirements may also be eligible to receive Medicaid.
Coverage and costs vary by state.
Medicaid is an insurance program sponsored jointly by states and the federal government.
Generally helps pay costs not covered by Medicare like deductibles, co-payments and co-insurance. 
Covers some hospital care, prescriptions, personal care services, and nursing home costs
Enroll through private insurance agencies.
Contact your state Medicaid program for additional details.

The Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985 (COBRA)

COBRA makes group health coverage available at group rates for employees and their dependents who would otherwise lose health benefits when they retire, leave their job or have certain other qualifying events.

Generally, employers with 20 or more employees are subject to COBRA. Coverage applies to employees, former employees and certain dependents who are or were covered under a group health plan. Benefits include medical, dental, vision, healthcare reimbursement and employee assistance programs.

Long-term care insurance and planning for long-term care

The average duration of long-term care for a retiree is estimated to be about three years. While long-term care (LTC) costs vary widely by region and type of facility, the national median cost of one month in an assisted living care facility was $4,000 in 2018 – or $48,000 per year. A private room in a nursing home costs about $8,365 a month, or a whopping $100,375 per year4. That adds up to $301,125 for three years of care — a significant expense which is expected to rise in the future. Medicare and Medigap policies offer limited, if any, coverage for LTC.

One way to plan for these costs is to purchase LTC benefit insurance. Premiums for this coverage vary by company but are generally based on your age, health status and the level of benefit you are purchasing. Make sure that the benefit on your LTC insurance policy will be enough to cover the average cost of care in your region in the future.

High-Deductible Health Plans (HDHP) and Health Savings Accounts (HSA)

A High-Deductible Health Plan (HDHP) may offer a practical way for retirees under age 65 (and therefore not yet eligible for Medicare) to deal with their medical costs. HDHP differs from other health insurance plans because its high deductible allows the policy to be offered at relatively low cost.

If an HDHP meets certain requirements, the policyholder may also open a Health Savings Account (HSA) to pay for HDHP deductibles and other qualified out-of-pocket costs. Money withdrawn from the HSA to pay for qualified expenses is tax-free as long as the expenses were incurred after the HSA was established and funded.

For 2018, the maximum annual contribution rates to an HSA are $3,450 for an individual and $6,900 for family coverage. Those who have reached age 55 but are not yet age 65 may contribute an additional $1,000 for 2018.

You can use an HSA account to pay for medical expenses as they occur, or you can accumulate funds in the account to pay for future health care expenses. Note that any distributions taken prior to age 65 that are not used for eligible medical expenses are subject to income tax and a 20 percent penalty.

Insurance Marketplaces

Beginning in 2014, public and private insurance marketplaces became available to purchase coverage for individuals and small businesses.

The marketplaces in each state are designed to allow you to compare coverage and cost among the policies offered by area health insurance companies. Some states run their own marketplaces, others have opted to have the federal government run them. Either way, you purchase insurance through your state marketplace.

An Ameriprise financial advisor can work with you to help build a confident retirement that anticipates health care costs and other major expenses in retirement.

Find answers to your retirement questions



1 Source: Employee Benefits Research Institute (ebri.org) October 8, 2018, No.460. Savings Medicare Beneficiaries Need for Health Expenses: Some Couples Could need as Much as $400,000, Up From $370,000 in 2017.
2 Medicaid pays the premium for those who are eligible for Medicaid benefits.
Individuals with limited income and resources may not have to pay a premium or deductible. Contact Social Security at 800.772.1213 or visit ssa.gov for more information.
4 Genworth 2018 Cost of Care Survey, conducted by CareScout®, June 2018
Before you purchase, be sure to ask your sales representative about the insurance policy’s features, benefits and fees, and whether the insurance is appropriate for you, based upon your financial situation and objectives.
Ameriprise Financial, Inc. and its affiliates do not offer tax or legal advice. Consult your tax adviser or attorney regarding your specific situation.
Ameriprise Financial Services, Inc. Member FINRA and SIPC.

Rethinking your 401(k)

For most Americans, an employer-based 401(k) is the primary vehicle used for retirement savings. While the pervasive wisdom is to put your savings on autopilot, doing so indefinitely could mean missing valuable opportunities to boost your retirement income. Check out these 5 retirement investment tips to help you maximize your 401(k).

1. Increase your retirement savings

Even if you choose to max out your pre-tax 401(k) contributions for the year, you could boost your savings by making after-tax contributions to your 401(k). While after-tax contributions do not decrease your taxable income, the investment earnings generated inside the 401(k) do compound on a tax-deferred basis.

2. Scrutinize your retirement investment options

Spend time understanding not only your 401(k) investment options, but how you want to allocate those funds. While some people prefer to use an age-appropriate mix of stocks and bonds in their retirement account, that may not be appropriate for others.

Some employer 401(k) plans also allow investing through a brokerage window, with more investment choices like individual stocks or exchange-traded funds. This may be a good option if you’re not satisfied with the fund choices based on your individual situation.

With all investment options, take a close look at the fees, as they can significantly affect investment growth over time.

3. Strategize future taxes

Those who earn too much to open a Roth IRA and anticipate an even higher income in retirement may want to consider a Roth 401(k) option to lower your future tax burden. As with a Roth IRA, you’ll be investing post-tax money, and you won’t be taxed when you withdraw funds at retirement as long as the withdrawal is a qualified distribution.

Be sure to consult with a tax accountant as well as your financial advisor for a holistic approach to your tax strategy.

4. Contribute side earnings

If you’re covered by an employer’s retirement plan and earn income on the side through your own venture, you can put additional tax-advantaged retirement money aside through an Individual 401(k). Your total “employee” contribution must be coordinated with the amount you put into your company plan, but you can still contribute 20-25% of pre-tax business earnings as the “employer’s” portion to your Individual 401(k) account.

5. Diversify your holdings

Sophisticated investment strategies can help you reduce taxes and enhance your returns. One example to consider, if your employer plan allows, is rolling your 401(k) into an IRA before your retirement.

Possible advantages of doing so can include greater diversification, different beneficiary options, more secure access to your account and different distribution options. There can also be potential adverse considerations such as loss of certain credit protections, possible freeze in employer matches and higher fees. Make sure you speak with both your financial and tax advisor before choosing a course of action.

Not sure which options are right for you? A financial advisor can help you understand the pros and cons and take your whole financial picture into consideration.


Do not use this information as the sole basis for investment decisions; it is not intended as advice designed to meet the particular needs of an individual investor.
Be sure you understand the potential benefits and risks of an IRA rollover before implementing. As with any decision that has tax implications, you should consult with your tax adviser prior to implementing an IRA rollover.
Diversification does not assure a profit or protect against loss.
Ameriprise Financial, Inc. and its affiliates do not offer tax or legal advice. Consumers should consult with their tax advisor or attorney regarding their specific situation.
Ameriprise Financial Services, Inc. Member FINRA and SIPC.

Rolling over 401k while still employed

Most people only think about rolling over their 401(k) savings into an IRA when they change jobs. For many people, that is an ideal time to shift funds because they can consolidate several retirement accounts from previous employers in one place and take advantage of more investment options. Though there could be reasons not to do so as well.

When leaving an employer, there are typically four 401(k) options:

  1. Leave the money in your former employer’s plan, if permitted
  2. Roll over the assets to the new employer’s plan if one exists and rollovers are permitted
  3. Roll over to an IRA
  4. Cash out the account value

But, leaving an employer isn’t the only time you can move your 401(k) savings. Sometimes it makes sense to roll over your 401(k) assets while you continue to work and make further contributions to your company plan. These rollovers may help you more effectively manage your retirement savings and diversify your investments. It is important to really weigh the pros and cons when considering this. But first, do some checking to see if you’re eligible. Not every 401(k) plan allows you to roll over your 401(k) while you are still working.

Reasons you may want to roll over now

  • Diversification. Investment options in your 401(k) can be limited and are selected by the plan sponsor. Rolling your funds over into an IRA can often broaden your choice of investments. More choices can mean more diversification in your retirement portfolio and the opportunity to invest in a wider range of asset classes including individual stocks and bonds, managed accounts, REITs and annuities.
  • Beneficiary flexibility. With some IRAs, you may be able to name multiple and contingent beneficiaries or name a trust as the beneficiary. Other IRAs may allow you to impose restrictions on beneficiaries. These options aren’t usually available with 401(k)s. But, keep in mind, not all IRA custodians have the same rules about beneficiaries so be sure to check carefully.
  • Ownership control. You are the owner and have access rights with an IRA. The assets in your IRA are also not subject to blackout periods. With a 401(k) plan, the qualified plan trustee owns the assets and assets may be subject to blackout periods in which account access is limited.
  • Distribution options. If your IRA is set up as a Roth IRA, there is not a set age when the owner is required to take minimum distributions. With 401(k) plans and traditional IRAs, the owner will have to take required minimum distributions by April 1 of the year after they turn age 70 ½.

Reasons you may want to wait

  • Temporary ban on contributions. Some plan sponsors impose a temporary ban on further 401(k) contributions for employees who withdraw funds before leaving the company. You’ll want to determine if the gap in contributions will significantly impact your retirement savings.
  • Early retirement. Most 401(k)s allow penalty-free withdrawals after age 55 for early retirees. With an IRA, you must wait until 59 ½ to avoid paying a 10% penalty.
  • Increased fees. IRA investors may pay more fees than they would in employer-sponsored plans. One reason: The range of more sophisticated investment options you may choose can be more expensive than 401(k) investments. Your advisor can help identify what extra cost a rollover may incur and if the benefits of the rollover justify those additional costs.
  • Can take loans out. Your 401(k) may permit you to take out a loan from the account, but this is typically only for active employees. And you may have to pay in full any outstanding loan balances when you leave the company. You cannot take loans from IRAs.

Next steps

Your advisor can help you determine if an early 401(k) rollover fits in with your retirement savings plan. They can also help determine what investments are best for you if you do decide to roll over your funds.


Investment products are not federally or FDIC-insured, are not deposits or obligations of, or guaranteed by any financial institution, and involve investment risks including possible loss of principal and fluctuation in value
Be sure you understand the potential benefits and risks of an IRA rollover before implementing. As with any decision that has tax implications, you should consult with your tax adviser prior to implementing an IRA rollover.  
Diversification can help protect against certain investment risks, but does not assure a profit or protect against loss.
Ameriprise Financial Services, Inc. Member FINRA and SIPC.

Retirement checklist

Knowing where your accounts are, how to access them and what those accounts contain is crucial to smart financial management. When you keep your financial information in one place and up to date, you can help ease stress on yourself, your family or other beneficiaries.

Get organized, for yourself and your loved ones

Maintaining important documents and sharing key information will provide peace of mind should anything unexpected occur. Be sure to periodically walk a spouse, partner, adult child or trusted friend through legal and financial records, PIN numbers, passwords and other personal information.

Complete the retirement checklist tasks below to get started.



✔  Designate a binder to hold all bills and paper statements.
✔  Keep legal documents, tax information, and permanent records in a fire-safe box in your home, or in a safety deposit box.

Go paperless

✔   Register for online account access.
✔   Create a consolidated source of information.

Automate when possible

✔   Sign up for automatic deposits, including paychecks, Social Security and tax refunds.

Catalog accounts and key documents

✔  Keep track of what’s in your safety deposit box, and share it with trusted family members and friends.
✔  Include a list of account numbers, descriptions, passwords and PINs in your safety deposit box.

Plan ahead

✔   Designate a power of attorney and consider a living will or health care directive.
✔   Write down contact information for your attorney, financial advisor and accountant and share this information with your heirs.
✔   Provide your most trusted loved ones with the combination to your home safe or access to a safety deposit box.
✔   Discuss your legal documents in detail with your advisor as it is important for your advisor to understand your needs and goals.

Download printable checklist

Identify all open accounts

If you haven’t been keeping track of your retirement and other financial accounts, it may seem daunting to get organized. But a few simple steps can make it manageable:

  • Register for online access to your accounts. It’s a good idea to do this for all of your financial accounts so that you can easily retrieve the information you need.
  • Make a list of former employers. If you think you may have a forgotten account, get the phone number from your former employer’s website and call the HR or Benefits department. They should have records to help you locate the account.
  • Gather your tax paperwork from previous years. You may have evidence of an account you rolled over or a contribution you deducted.
  • Confirm accounts for your household. If you are married or have a partner, this is an ideal time for you to get organized together.

Once you have gathered the information you need, list the accounts, their location, current value and access information. Share the list with your spouse or partner, and then store it in a safety deposit box or home safe.

To simplify the ongoing management of these assets, you should also consider consolidating your accounts. Your financial advisor can help you review your accounts and take an overall look at your finances.

Update your beneficiaries

Each of your retirement accounts will pass to the beneficiary(ies) listed (or according to your plan’s default beneficiary if you do not list a beneficiary), regardless of what you stated in your will or trust. So it’s critical to review your beneficiaries regularly, especially after a marriage, divorce, birth or death of a loved one.

As you review your beneficiaries, keep these tips in mind:

  • Designate a contingent (or secondary) beneficiary in case something happens to your primary beneficiary.
  • Name a new beneficiary if a primary beneficiary (such as a parent) dies.
  • Remember to remove an ex-spouse after a divorce or new marriage.
  • Update your beneficiaries after the birth or adoption of a child.
  • Get guidance from an estate planning attorney before naming an estate as your beneficiary.
  • Complete a separate beneficiary form for each plan.

This is also a good time to update other documents, such as:

  • Wills
  • Trusts
  • Financial and medical powers of attorney
  • Real estate titles
  • Business ownership agreements

Keeping your beneficiary designations and legal documents up to date can help ensure a smooth transition of your assets to your heirs.

Decide what to keep and what to destroy

While it’s smart to keep permanent documents in a fire-proof and water-proof safe or safety deposit box, there are certain items that you can get rid of over time. Be sure to shred all discarded documents first, to keep them out of the hands of identity thieves. For those records you keep, make sure you tell your family and other beneficiaries how to access your safe or safety deposit box if they ever need to.

How long should you keep tax returns and other important financial documents?

Keep indefinitely
Keep for 7 years
Keep for 1 year
Keep for a month or less
Legal and permanent records
Tax-related records, such as W2s
Paycheck stubs
ATM and bank deposit slips (for transactions that can be confirmed online or through a consolidated statement)
Will or trust document
Receipts for tax-deductible purchases
Credit card statements
Receipts for non-deductible purchases, unless you are holding them for possible returns or warranty-related repairs
Birth and marriage certificates
Canceled checks
Bills such as rent, cable and electricity
Insurance policies
Retirement account contributions
Account statements
Charitable donations
Large out-of-pocket medical expenses
Mortgage payments

For additional assistance organizing and consolidating your finances, contact an Ameriprise financial advisor.


Ameriprise Financial, Inc. and its affiliates do not offer tax or legal advice. Consumers should consult with their tax advisor or attorney regarding their specific situation.
Ameriprise Financial Services, Inc. Member FINRA and SIPC.

Determining your retirement age

Being aware of key retirement ages can help you prepare for the future.

Catch-up contribution age. You can make catch-up contributions to many retirement plans beginning in the year you turn 50.


403(b) and 401(k) withdrawal age. You can start taking penalty-free withdrawals from qualified retirement plans such as 401(k)s, 403(b)s and profit sharing plans after you left your employer in the year you turned 55 or later.

IRA withdrawal age. You can begin taking withdrawals without penalty from IRAs and qualified retirement plans.


Social Security benefits age. You can start taking reduced Social Security benefits.


Medicare sign up age. You should sign up for Medicare hospital insurance (Part A) 3 months before your 65th birthday, whether or not you want to begin receiving retirement benefits.


Social Security benefits age. You can start taking full Social Security benefits depending on your birth year. Any delay in applying for Social Security benefits, up to age 70, can qualify you for increased retirement benefits.

RMD age. You must begin taking Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) from most retirement accounts.



Investment advisory products and services are made available through Ameriprise Financial Services, Inc., a registered investment adviser.
The initial consultation provides an overview of financial planning concepts. You will not receive written analysis and/or recommendations.
Ameriprise Financial Services, Inc. Member FINRA and SIPC.

Boeing’s New Refueling Drone Allows NAVY Fighter Pilots to Fill up at 30,000 Feet

ou’re running low, and you need to refuel.  No big deal, right?  You pull into the nearest gas station, stop at a pump, grab a hose and in five minutes, you’re back on your way again.

Now imagine your “gas station” is 30,000 feet up in the air –

  • you’re refueling on the fly (literally), traveling more than 300 miles an hour
  • the “gas station attendant” has to drop a 20-foot hose down to your fuel tank
  • pumping a thousand gallons a minute
  • oh, and you’re doing all this over the middle of the ocean.

That’s life for Navy fighter pilots.  But now, those pilots are about to get a new gas station…

(Photo from Boeing)

…Boeing’s MQ-25, a refueling drone.

How Much Oil is in an Electric Vehicle?


What makes an EV (Electric Vehicle) run?

Oil and natural gas.

True fact.  They’re in every EV – every Chevy Bolt, every Toyota Prius, every Tesla anything.

Not in the form of fuel, no.  In the form of high-performance, engineered polymers (a fancy way to say “modern plastics”) made from petrochemicals, which come from oil and natural gas.  (And just for the record, many of those same polymers are also in non-EV cars and trucks.)

The explainers at Visual Capitalist break it down in this infographic:  How Much Oil & Natural Gas are in an Electric Vehicle?

Here are a couple highlights:

Nearly half the volume of today’s cars is made up of polymeric materials, more than a thousand parts all told – which is a good thing.  Today’s engineered plastics are durable and tough (carbon fiber-reinforced composites are actually stronger than the metal they replaced), and they are easier to work with (think adhesives versus welding and riveting) and easier to produce (think molding versus stamping and bending).

Some of the engineered polymers found in EVs? Just look at the interior and you’ll see dashboard components made from acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene copolymer, which is derived from the petrochemicals ethylene, propylene, butadiene and benzene.  ABS is so tough, you’ll even find it on exterior body parts.

And the shatter-proof glass to protect the dials and indicators on your dash?  Believe it or not that’s polystyrene!  Not like your coffee cup, but a special high-performance polystyrene (made using ethylene and benzene) that is tough and crystal clear.

Look under the hood and you’ll see a variety of gears, bearing, bushing and cams made out of polyamide (a fancy word for a family of engineered nylons).  Those polyamide components start with the building blocks butadiene and benzene.  Chemists take those two petrochemicals and go through a series of reactions to make bigger, more complex molecules that can be reacted to make several different polyamides.

We could go on and on, but we think you’ve got the idea.  High-performance polymers are found throughout EVs; and, this trend will only continue as more and more carbon-fiber composites are used for structural components and body parts.  Even NASCAR has gone in that direction!  And yes, even those carbon fibers are derived from petrochemicals, namely propylene.

High-tech plastics also weigh a lot less.  So that half the car volume made up of polymers?   That only represents about 10 percent of the car’s weight.  Less weight means better fuel economy for any car – but that weight-loss thanks to polymers is especially important with EVs, because the battery packs in those cars often add as much as an extra thousand pounds to the car.

The full infographic from Visual Capitalist is below. To view the infographic on their website, click here.




The wheels on the bus make the world go round

25 million kids get to school each day (and home again) on a school bus.

And how do those school buses get to school?  Almost every one of them is fueled by diesel.

Yep, without the diesel fueling these buses, a lot of parents would be scrambling to get their kids to and from school about 180 days a year (your average school year).

That’s a lot to be thankful for right there (especially for the kids that don’t really have a Plan B for getting to school otherwise).

But it turns out there’s other good news about school buses.

Like this (don’t take it personally): “Students are about 70 times more likely to get to school safely when taking a school bus instead of traveling by car,”* according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

And did you know about the “school bus effect?”  It turns out that school buses not only help kids get to school, they help kids STAY in school.  From EdSource, “Students who ride the school bus in the critical first year — kindergarten – are absent less often and have lower odds of being chronically absent, a key indicator of future academic success…”**

Not bad for a big yellow bus.

It could be that one day, very far in the future, kids will get to skip over the bus stop by strapping on their jet packs and flying off to school. And no, they will probably never step into the transporter room at home and get beamed to school (although that would make life a lot easier when they forget their homework or their lunch. Just beam over a couple of PB&Js.)

But the future – tomorrow, and as a practical matter, for years to come– is probably going to look pretty much like today.  Which is to say, if your kids ride a bus to school, chances are, it’ll be running on diesel fuel.  And it’ll be yellow.


3D Printed Hearts: Changing the Future of Healthcare

Let’s say you have to go into the hospital for surgery.

Would you rather have a doctor with experience, or would you rather be your doctor’s very first surgery?  Ok, that’s easy – you’d want the veteran.  But now imagine that your doctor could rehearse – say the day before you go into the operating room?  Even better, yes?

Now let’s make it better still.  Imagine that your doctor can rehearse on you.  Well, “you” – because what your doctor would be using, is a model of your heart, say.  But a model of your actual heart – not a generic heart from the supply room shelf.

That’s possible now, thanks to high-tech polymers and 3-D printing.  (Petrochemicals are used to make the polymers, or plastics.  The 3D printer turns those plastics into replica hearts, or other parts of our bodies.)


Here’s how it would work: “Before inserting and expanding a pen-sized stent into someone’s aorta, the hose-like artery that carries our blood away from the heart, Doctor Jason Chuen, a vascular (blood vessels) surgeon at Australia’s University of Melbourne, likes to practice on the patient first. …

“He has a 3D printer in his office and brightly colored plastic aortas line his window sill [though it’s true, it looks a bit like a squid]

“… They are all modeled from real patients and printed out from CT scans, ultrasounds, and x-rays.

“’By using the model I can more easily assess that the stent is the right size and bends in exactly the right way when I deploy it,’ says Chuen.”

Think of it as a personalized dress rehearsal for surgery, but the patient only has to show up for the actual operation.

Doctor Chuen’s routine is not routine today, but this has the look of the standard operating procedure of the future, as it were.

And maybe one day, it will not only make for better surgeries – but a great souvenir too, when you get to take home your model aorta after surgery.

That’s before surgery.  But plastics (polymers) and printers are making their way into the operating room as well.

For instance, how about a high-tech plastic skull?   Not a toy skull for Halloween, but a replacement for damaged human bone.  Done.

Earlier this year, a New Jersey man received a 3D printed, plastic skull implant, to replace skull bone damaged by infection.

Doctor Gaurav Gupta used PEEK (polyetheretherketone, which is why it’s called “PEEK”) – to create a customized cranial implant – made specifically for that patient, based on the CT scan of that patient.

As Gupta explained, “PEEK is an inert substance that does not cause an inflammatory reaction, there are no known allergies to it, and it is not rejected by the body.  The implants are also impact-resistant, fracture-resistant, and do not erode or dissolve.”

And yes, the patient’s skin goes over the implant, so as the New Jersey patient put it, “I look exactly the same and feel like myself again.”

That also is happening today, though also not routinely.  Yet.

Now these medical advances depend on many things, but petrochemicals, the chemicals made from petroleum and natural gas, are an essential ingredient of the plastics and other materials that 3D printers are turning into these medical miracles of the future.

Doctor Jason Chuen summed up that future this way, “I think we are moving towards a world where if you can imagine it, you will be able to print it – so we need to start imagining.”

Imagine that.

Find Out What Powers the World’s Biggest Engine

707 horsepower.  That’s what’s under the hood of the Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk.

Fill ‘er up with 100 octane, and you can get 840 horsepower out of a Dodge Challenger SRT Demon.

Or (if $2.5 million is burning a hole through your pocket), you could be driving a Bugatti Chiron, with 1,479 horsepower at your fingertips.

And those are all impressive engines.

Until you see this.


That’s the look of 109,000 horsepower.  The biggest engine in the world.

Now it’s true, since it weighs 2,300 tons, stands 44 feet tall and is 90 feet long – you’re not going to find the Wartsila RT-flex96C in a car, any car, ever.

But what the world’s biggest engine DOES run – are ships.  Some of the world’s biggest ships, naturally.  Like the Emma Maersk (which actually was the world’s biggest container ship, when it was launched.)

But big as it is, inside the RT-flex 96C has a crankshaft, pistons…

…cylinders (14 of them), a diesel engine (with some tweaks) like the diesel engine in a car or a truck, running on diesel fuel (with some nautical tweaks).

So even though you’d have to look hard to find this (the Bugatti’s W16 engine)…

…next to this (the RT-flex 96C, installed on board)…

…the principles of the internal combustion engine are at work just the same, on land and sea.  And they both run on diesel fuels, produced from petroleum.

Now if you’d like to see the Bugatti, or the Dodge, or the Jeep, head down to your nearest dealership.  And if you can see what the Emma Maersk is up to, right now, or anytime, try VesselFinder.

(Sorry though, if you’d like to get the feel of 109,000 horsepower, you’ll have to start by applying to the Merchant Marine Academy.  The Emma Maersk, unlike the cars, is not for sale.)


Click here to read more about what’s new, what’s next and what it means for you. 

Yuck! (in a good way): Slime powered by STEM Technology

There are a lot of useful things you can make from petroleum and natural gas:  gas for your car, jet fuel for an airplane; a golf ball or a football; plastic pipe or plastic wrap.

But the science crew at Valero has something you can make that is TRULY useful.  Slime!

So clear off the kitchen table (spread out some newspapers, or plastic wrap); gather up your kids (young and young-at-heart); and get ready for an experiment in the “home lab”.

Stuff you’ll need:

½ cup white glue (like Elmer’s).

1 squirt of foaming shaving cream.

2 pumps of foaming hand soap.

3 pumps of hand lotion.

Borax (in powdered form, which you can usually find in a grocery or hardware store).

Food coloring (your favorite color).

Glitter (if you like a sparkly slime).

What you’ll do:

Pour the ½ cup of glue into a bowl (no, not the holiday china).

Add the squirt of shaving cream, the two pumps of soap and the 3 pumps of lotion.

Mix.  Well.

Add food coloring (and the glitter, if you’re using it).

In a separate bowl, mix (also well) equal amounts of borax and water (try a half-cup each to start).

SLOWLY pour the borax solution into the first bowl while you mix with your fingers until it feels like…slime!

Enjoy!  Or whatever it is a person does with slime.

Just in case: 

If the slime starts to get sticky, blend in a little more of the borax and water solution.

If the slime gets onto anyone, vinegar will get the slime out of clothes and mayo (yes, really) will take the slime out of hair.

And if you are a visual learner:

You can find a video to follow along here:  How to make slime

This new way of making concrete reduces its carbon footprint by over 70%

There are a lot of things you can do with concrete.  But we’re going to guess that no matter how long your list is – cleaning the air isn’t on it.

You can add that to the list now though.

Here’s the (brief) background:   Concrete is made up of three things:  water, rock (or crushed rock, aka sand or gravel) and cement.  And cement, it turns out, all by itself, accounts for 5 to 7 percent of CO2 (carbon dioxide).  Worldwide.  Every year.

So since the world uses a LOT of concrete every year (it’s the second-most used substance on the planet*) – that’s a lot of cement, a lot of CO2, and since more carbon dioxide in the air  – that’s a lot of problem.

Here’s the (new) solution:  a different way to make cement and concrete, that altogether reduces its “carbon footprint” by as much as 70 PERCENT.

An American company, Solidia Technologies figured out how to do it.  A fuels and petrochemical company, BP, is investing in the project to bring this new technology into the real world.

The trick (well, two tricks, really) is first:  making the cement at a lower temperature (and with less limestone) – which cuts greenhouse gas emissions; and second: making a concrete from that cement, which actually (and permanently) absorbs CO2 as it is hardening.

Not only is this new process a lot more friendly to the environment – this concrete is stronger and more durable.  It uses a lot less water to make.  And it looks pretty good too…

(Photo from BP)

…well, as concrete blocks go.

And if you figure that each year, we use enough concrete to build about 1500 of these…

(that’s Hoover Dam)…that’s not just another chip off the old (concrete) block.

*And in case you were wondering, the most-used substance is water.

Click here to read more about what’s new, what’s next and what it means for you.

High-tunnel farming enables year-round farming across the United States

Sometimes tunnel vision isn’t such a bad thing.

On a farm, for example.  “High tunnel” farming, in fact, is a new, but good thing.  Think of it as a tunnel-shaped greenhouse.

(Photo of Millsap Farms, by Nate Luke Photography for Farm Talk)

So what’s the big deal about that?  In a high tunnel, you can grow crops in a place, or at a time of year, when those crops don’t normally grow.  So folks in Missouri, for instance, can get fresh spinach and lettuce, carrots or kale all the way up to winter time – and no, you won’t see those plants outdoors in a Midwestern winter.  As one farmer put it, in some areas a high tunnel means you can be a “four-season farmer.”

This story is one of our ongoing series on The Future of Farming…

…looking at the essential part petrochemicals play in how we grow enough food for a growing world population.  You can read the introduction to that series here.

Now in case you’re wondering about this story, these tunnels are also described as “hoophouses”.

That’s because these tunnel farms are made up of big plastic (PVC from ethylene) or metal hoops – with enormous plastic sheets stretched over them.  Underneath, there are rows and rows of plants growing under the “sheet.”

But while the hoops are important (they hold the whole thing up), if there wasn’t something to put over them (that clear plastic sheeting), there wouldn’t be anything growing underneath.  That makes those polyethylene and polycarbonate plastics (used to make the sheets) mighty important.  And in turn, the building blocks of those plastics – the petrochemicals ethylene and benzene (long transformed by chemical reactions in the lab, of course, by the time they cover over a high tunnel) – that makes those petrochemicals mighty important too.


Meet this trailblazing chemical engineer and passionate NASCAR fan

In this thriving industry, hard hats don’t just come in men’s sizes. A perpetual need for skilled workers in the fuels and petrochemical industries long ago nixed the notion that these jobs are traditionally for men. But even today, as men and women work side by side to produce the energy and products that power our world, our nation’s “better half” might not fully realize these high-paying careers are awaiting them.

One way to spread the word? Share their stories. As part of an ongoing series, join us for a look at some of the women working in today’s fuels and petrochemical plants.


Meet Dollnila Slater.  First one in her family to go college.  NASCAR fan (still missing Jeff Gordon).  One of three African American women in her graduating class.  Game of Thrones fan (missing that too).  Chemical engineer, heading up one of the business teams at Motiva’s Port Arthur refinery.

Every day on her watch, Port Arthur can turn up to 630,000 barrels of crude oil — into the gasoline we use every day, along with diesel for trucks, lubricating base oils (think motor oil and lubricants for just about everything with a moving part) , and jet fuel for — well, airplanes.  (And that work goes on every night too.  The refinery is in production around the clock.)

So her day starts with a look at what happened during the last shift — then she plans for the new shift and their work (they are regularly called on to change the mix of what they make — a little less diesel, a little more gasoline, and so on).  When that’s done, and the current shift is well underway — she moves on to a little longer-term planning (like a “turnaround” which is preparing to work around a piece of equipment that will need to go off-line for repairs or routine maintenance).  And the next day, she starts that all over again.

When she began her career (she started on the production side herself, as a process engineer) — her grandfather, who worked in the steel and shipping industries, told her, “Baby, you go show them what you can do.”

Get the most out of your car and stay safe and sane with these summer driving tips

Planning a road trip this summer?

You won’t be alone.  AAA figures that about half of us who hit the road this year for a vacation, will be traveling ON a road, somewhere in the U.S. (which adds up to more than 50 millions of us).

If you’re one of them, we’ve got a few summer driving tips for you — to get you ready, and keep you going.


Where the rubber meets the road —

Step one:  Check the tread on your tires.  You can use the “penny test” for this:  put a penny in the tread with Lincoln’s head upside down.  If you can see the top of his head, you need new tires.

Step two:  Check the tire pressure.  Use the recommended number from that sticker on the driver’s door frame (or in your owner’s manual).  A lot of us drive on underinflated tires, which is not only bad for your gas mileage — in summer heat, that can spell b-l-o-w-o-u-t.  If your car has a spare tire, check the pressure on that too.

Stay hydrated —

Check all the fluids in your car:  your radiator should have a mix of water AND antifreeze (because in the heat, antifreeze works as coolant) — and that mix should be clean and full.  Also check the oil, brake fluid, transmission fluid, power steering and windshield washer fluid (and yes, if any of those are low, fill ‘em up).

I can see clearly now —

So you’ve made sure your windshield wiper fluid is topped up — now make sure your windshield wipers are working well.  Winter can be hard on wiper blades, so test them out at home before you get into a summer thunderstorm and discover you can’t see.

Oh snap —

And just in case something DOES go wrong when you get out on the road, save a little room in the trunk for an emergency kit.  Good to have items include:  a charger for your phone (well, plus your phone), a flashlight, jumper cables, first aid kit, duct tape (for everything!), food and water, maps (in case the phone doesn’t work), blankets (for cold summer nights, depending on where you are).

As always, if you’re the mechanically-inclined type, you can do all this yourself.  And if you are not, that’s what why we have mechanics.  What matters is checking everything out, not who does the checking.

Fuel and petrochemical industries offer high-paying careers that don’t require a four-year degree

If you’ve heard people say that America doesn’t make anything anymore – that there are no good blue collar jobs anymore – here’s the answer to that:  wrong, and wrong.

There are still American industries where those jobs never went anywhere – jobs that require serious skills and knowledge, but don’t necessarily require college degrees.  Jobs where making things has never gone out of style – jobs where you don’t learn your trade straight out of a book — and you can find those jobs in America’s fuel and petrochemical industries.

Let’s look at an example.  If you’ve ever driven by a refinery or a petrochemical plant, you’ve probably noticed all those glowing lights – like a small city…


…and there’s something to that.  Inside are hundreds of structures, thousands of miles of pipe, all sorts of sophisticated equipment and advanced technology –  all of it operating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Also inside, keeping that “city” running are operators, technicians, environmental coordinators, maintenance workers, managers and inspectors – all making sure those pipes, equipment and technology are running smoothly.

Keeping an eye on everything, on that same 24/7 clock – are process operators.  In this case, keeping an eye on their small city from high-tech control rooms, monitoring an array of screens and other sophisticated monitors which are feeding them streams of video and data – watching to see that everything goes as it should – and responding fast if anything doesn’t (you can read more about their work in Bill Laster’s story below).

Chad Harbin is a pressure equipment inspector at Phillips 66 Wood River Refinery (which is actually on the Mississippi River, in southern Illinois).

Chad started his working life after high school – with a six-year stint in the Navy.  By the time he was done, he was running the power systems for the entire ship (a guided-missile frigate) – from the engines, the weapons, the navigation gear, even the kitchen.

He didn’t know it then, but that set him up nicely to be the guy in charge of keeping a refinery running safely – which at Wood River includes two fluid catalytic cracking units, two delayed coking units, hydrocracking, alkylation, naphtha and sulfur recovery (and yes, he has to know what all those things mean). 

Outside, all around the facility, inspectors and gaugers, boiler operators and other workers are on the job.  Overseeing and operating pumps and furnaces, compressors and valves, turning them on, adjusting them, turning them off – and monitoring everything. At times, they can even be 200 feet up in the air, on top of a tower to adjust a valve – or down on solid ground, tweaking the temperature and pressure inside a unit.  And not everything an employee needs to know is in a book – paying attention to what they see, and smell, and hear can be just as essential to keeping a facility running safely and reliably.

Bill Laster is a refinery shift leader at Chevron’s El Segundo Refinery (in LA, just south of the airport).

Bill started as a trainee with Chevron, almost 40 years ago.  Compared to the refinery though, he’s just a kid.  El Segundo is 108 years old in 2019.

His job takes him inside “Mission Control” for the refinery – the place where they keep tabs on everything that’s going on.  Inside that 38,000 square foot room – are 36 big-screen monitors, seven miles of fiber optic cable, 24 miles of communications cables and a staff that is on the job 24/7 – tracking reports from operators and inspectors out in the plant ,and data from automated censors.  And his work takes him outside, all over the refinery – to see with his own eyes what’s going on, and to offer help wherever that might be needed – keeping refinery workers safe, as well as the facility’s LA neighbors.

And Bill’s leadership is especially important today because when El Segundo was built, it was almost on the edge of the Pacific Ocean and nothing else.  But in today’s Los Angeles, residential neighborhoods now come right up to the refinery, and LA International Airport (which didn’t exist way back when), is also just next door.

The whirr of possibility: printing with recycled plastic

What if today’s problems, are tomorrow’s solutions?

That appears to be the future of discarded plastic.

Today, companies in fields ranging from automotive to retail to healthcare and petrochemicals, are finding new, innovative ways to recover, recycle and reuse plastic. And for good reason.

From food storage to sports equipment to life-saving medical devices and even home energy efficiency, vast innovations in plastic made from petrochemicals are helping us live better and longer.


Emboldened by 3D printing technology, they are being used to create affordable, customized prosthetics that improve mobility for the disabled. They are printing crucial medical equipment needed in underserved areas of the world. In fact, you may soon be printing car parts using recycled plastic, in the comfort of your own garage. After all, about half of today’s cars are made from high-tech plastic (seats and seat cushions, hoods and bumpers, even drive shafts and tanks).

One day, you could be driving a freshly-printed car, on roads that came from the same plastic bottles that were broken down to make those printed parts.

Reusing today’s plastic as tomorrow’s raw material? Imagine That.

Things Are Looking Up: Next Steps In Space

Rideshare rockets servicing near-earth resorts. Orbiting farms producing food for a growing gravity-optional population. Moon and Mars colonies. Now that so many space-based “what ifs” are poised to become “what is” there’s no better time to imagine what it all be like. And what else will come along for the ride.

Making Space for Humanity

With the first “hotel in space” slated to launch by 2021, it seems certain that travel beyond the earth’s atmosphere will become increasingly accessible. People being people that means you can also expect to see new forms of fun floating around the great beyond. Games specifically designed for no- or low-gravity?  Space playgrounds for the whole family?  Zero-G sports teams and leagues?  Why not? After all, as they might say by 2050, “all work and no play, makes Jill a dull astronaut.”


Gravity Defying Fuels

Of course, while many of the innovations that will make this great leap possible have yet to be invented, some of the more essential keys have been with us all along. Take kerosene, for example, a rocket fuel staple from John Glenn’s pioneering flight in 1962 to the reusable boosters Space X uses today. Petrochemicals play an essential role in everything from on-board computers to space suits to, well, that far, far, away galaxy and last Jedi’s light saber.


Benefits That Return to Earth

Repurposed space technology has already made a huge difference in fields ranging from energy efficient lighting, to water purification, to, now, plastics recycling and re-use, courtesy of NASA’s “refabricator” system on board the International Space Station. What’s next? Picture commercial innovation labs built to take advantage of unique science conditions to speed the development of new medicines, technologies, and agricultural advances.

More to Explore

You see, while it might sound a bit cliché, the sky really is no longer a limit. Especially when you consider how soon human imagination, together with the right materials, will take us where no one, truly, has gone before. Imagine that.

How a Refinery’s neighbors became its future workforce

Born and raised into a low-income family in San Pablo, Calif., about 30 minutes east of San Francisco, Yesenia Pineda struggled to find a sustainable career after leaving high school. She lacked the money and support to complete a college degree. At the time, she didn’t think to ask whether the area’s largest employer, the Chevron Richmond Refinery, was hiring. She always thought applicants needed at least a college degree to qualify for jobs at Chevron, known to provide high wages and good benefits.



Yesenia Pineda

“I’ve known Chevron all my life,” Pineda said. “You have to be a super genius with a college background. Normal people don’t go to work there.”

Or so she thought. One day, while feeling stifled by an unfulfilling job, she was invited to an orientation for a career program.

“Where are we going?” she remembered asking her classmate.

“To attend a training program that helps people get jobs at places like Chevron,” he said.

Pineda was skeptical, but she agreed to attend – a decision that has changed her life in the same way it had changed hundreds of lives before her.

After learning about the Regional Occupational Program, a statewide vocational training program that prepares Californians for success careers in a wide variety of fields including the fuels and petrochemical industries, Pineda found out she didn’t need to be a genius, or even have college pedigree, to qualify for opportunities at Chevron. What she needed was just five months of dedication. And the best part, there was no cost for Pineda to participate.

While working the late shift full time, Pineda completed the intensive, the ROP Plant Process Operator course. It paid off – literally. Last year, she was hired into the Chevron Refinery’s Operator Trainee Program. It’s a lucrative career track, as Process Operator annual salaries in the refining industry range from $94,363 to $135,742.

And now, Pineda is enjoying a new normal.

An industry hungry for workers

The fuels and petrochemical industries are among the nation’s highest paying, in large part because the demand for skilled workers is also among the highest. Companies that comprise the fuels and petrochemical industries invest hundreds of millions of dollars annually to support workforce development and training programs that provide people with the training and skills needed for jobs in this sector.

The problem, of course, is plants such as the Richmond Refinery don’t just need workers tomorrow – they needs them today.

Established in 1978, the Chevron program is a partnership with the Contra Costa County Office of Education (CCCOE). For 18 weeks in classes offered both during the afternoons and evenings, retired and current Chevron workers provide local residents with intensive training on the skills needed for a career in the fuel and petrochemical industries. To date, nearly 900 people have graduated from the program, which boasts a strong track record for placing graduates in jobs not just at the Chevron Refinery, but also other local facilities owned by Shell, Tesoro, Valero and Phillips 66.

Jeff Brauning, who runs student programs for CCCOE,” called the public-private partnership “a wonderful example of how Industry and Education can work together to provide valuable potentially life changing skills to local community members.”

Brauning said the outcomes he sees regularly from this ROP program is “the reason we all go into education.”

“Students who graduate from this program and are hired by the local refineries truly have their lives changed,” he said. “Many of them have financial stability, retirement and benefits for themselves and their families for the first time in their lives.”

And along the way, they gain more than important technical skills. The program offers training in communication and teamwork skills, with job safety emphasized throughout.

Toward the end of the program, Chevron Refinery workers, including some ROP graduates, conduct mock interviews as part of training in the job hiring process.

Perhaps most importantly, students build confidence in the program. That can be attributed to longtime instructors Mike Joyce, who teaches the Process Plant Operator (PPO) track of the ROP program, and John Ghiringelli, who instructs the Industrial Maintenance Mechanic (IMM) program.

Both instructors, who also happen to be employees at the Chevron Refinery, are wildly popular among students, Brauning said. They, themselves, are also graduates of the program. Joyce graduated from the program just over 40 years ago.

“John and I are proof that this works – we came up through this program too,” he said.

Joyce would eventually land what he called “the best job ever” at Chevron, back when it was called Standard Oil of California. He became a trainer in order to give back.

Give it a try

Pineda said she’s finally feeling fulfilled about her career and its trajectory.

“The people [at the Chevron Refinery] have been amazing; I have a really good group, really good trainer,” Pineda said. “Being a minority and being a woman, I thought that it might be a challenge, but I came to find out everyone is really accepting. They look out for each other, have each other’s back, and want each other to succeed.”

While the work, of course, can be challenging, Pineda said “it has given me a respect for what’s being done, for all the work that goes into putting gas in your vehicle.”

Her advice for others in her community looking for jobs in the fuels and petrochemical industries: “Give it a try.”

“It difficult dedicating five months to something but it’s also a great opportunity to change your life,” Pineda said. “A lot of people from our community don’t have those options.”

To learn more about Chevron’s ROP program, click here.


Click here to read more about what’s new, what’s next and what it means for you.

Simple changes to your daily routine can lead to a greener future

So you keep the tires on your car properly inflated – you’ve cleared all that extra junk out of the trunk – you drive at a steady speed, not jackrabbit starts or stops – you keep your car tuned up and your air filter clean.  Your car is a lean, mean, green machine.

That’s good.  But like a lot of us, maybe you want to do more to reduce your “carbon footprint” and fight global warming.

Well, there IS plenty each of us can do, some easy things to change, some things maybe more of a challenge.  Here are a few suggestions:

Wash your clothes in cold water.  Today’s detergents and machines are made to handle that – and it turns out that THREE-QUARTERS of the energy your washer uses, and the greenhouse gas emissions that it creates – comes just from heating the water.

Got a dishwasher?  Use it, but use it only when it’s full.  That could cut 100 pounds of CO2emissions every year (and you’ll save money too).

And speaking of water, if you turn down the temperature on your water heater from what it usually is (140 degrees Fahrenheit), to 120 degrees – you can knock off another 550 pounds of CO2, each year.

Here’s a different energy saving tip for the house – change out those old incandescent light bulbs for CFLs (compact fluorescent light bulbs) – the twisty bulbs.  Yes, the old CFLs were not so great – but today’s bulbs are quiet, come in almost every size and shape you could want, and the quality of the light is good (“warmer”, in the trade).  The typical CFL bulb uses just TWENTY-FIVE PERCENT of the electricity the old incandescent bulbs use – so if every household in the country made the switch, we’d cut 62.5 million tons of CO2 emissions each year.  (They last longer too, a lot longer – so you’ll save money on light bulbs as well.)

Now, if you want more of a challenge (or if you’ve already done all that), here’s something a little more demanding, for most of us.

One day every week when you would be having a burger or something else with beef – eat something with chicken instead.  Yes, it’s the cow “f__t” thing.  Cows are a serious source of methane (a greenhouse gas).  Switching one day a week, keeps the equivalent of 730 pounds of CO2 out of the atmosphere, every year.  And if all of us in the U.S., had a “no meat” day once a week – well, that’s a lot greenhouse gas that never gets into the air.

Maybe none of that seems like such a big deal when you do it, or your neighbor does it – but when everyone does – the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions adds up to a lot.  And of course, there are more changes we can make too – you may have your own list – and everything any of us does, helps.  (And while you’re doing everything else, don’t forget to take care of your car  too.)

New study unpacks the environmental impact of paper, plastic, and reusable bags.

Paper or plastic?

paper bag and plastic bag side by side

If your answer to that is, “Duh” — read on, and you might be surprised at what the New York Times found recently:

“Even though paper bags are made from trees, which are, in theory, a renewable resource, it takes significantly more energy to create pulp and manufacture a paper bag than it does to make a single-use plastic bag from oil.”

Citing a British study that looked at the A to Z of making a bag, “You’d have to reuse a paper bag at least three times before its environmental impact equaled that of a high-density polyethylene plastic bag used only once.  And if plastic bags were reused repeatedly, they looked even better.”

And bags that are designed to be reusable?  They have an even higher upfront environmental cost (like the land, energy, emissions, etc. that come from growing cotton).  “The study found that an avid shopper would have to reuse his or her cotton bag 131 times before it had a smaller global warming impact than a lightweight plastic bag used only once.”

Maybe that wasn’t the answer you were expecting.  But it’s not an answer that should make us throw up our arms in despair.  Here are our takeaways:

  1. Whatever sort of bag you use, use it again, and again and again.
  2. When you’re done using a plastic bag, think of it as raw material for making new plastic — not as trash. Recycle it instead of tossing it.  And if your community doesn’t have recycling for plastic bags — well, there’s some work waiting to be done.
  3. Sometimes the obvious answer to what’s best for the environment, turns out not to be the right answer. And in the fight against global warming, often there isn’t just one right answer anyhow.

(And if you’d like to read the original story in the Times, you’ll find that here:  Plastic Bags, or Paper?  Here’s What to Consider When You Hit the Grocery Store)

Mazda’s new SKYACTIV-X engine provides the best of gasoline and diesel

If you have a car, odds are, the engine under the hood is an internal combustion engine.  That means, among other things, that every few hundred miles or so, you pull into a gas station and fill up the car’s fuel tank with gasoline or diesel.  That’s how it’s been since the first cars hit the road.

There are other ways to power a car – and 100 years from now, who knows what will be under the hood.  But today, and for the foreseeable future, it’s the internal combustion engine that will be getting us where we need to go.

Is that a bad thing?  Nope.

Nope – because it’s a proven, reliable, affordable engine – and because the internal combustion engine keeps getting better.

Better, as in 15 percent more fuel-efficient – and from the same engine, 15 percent more oomph (or torque, if you want to get technical). And it’s the engineers at Mazda and their new SKYACTIV-X engine which gets those new numbers.  We’ve mentioned it before, but today we thought we’d do a little Engine 101, and explain (a bit) how Mazda got to their new version of a classic.

The short (really short) explanation, is that Mazda combined a diesel and a gasoline engine into one engine.

(Photo from Mazda)

Here’s the slightly longer explanation:

  • Diesel fuel and gasoline are both made from the same barrel of oil – but there are differences between the engines that use them. Both engines get their power from burning the fuel.  Both engines use pistons that push up and down inside cylinders, which turns a crankshaft, which connects to the clutch, which connects to the gears, which connects to the axle, which moves the wheels.
  • But – in a diesel engine, the power comes from compressing the fuel. The piston moves up, and squeezes the fuel into such a small space that it gets hot and explodes, pushing the piston down, which turns the crankshaft, and so on.
  • In a gasoline engine, the power comes from setting the fuel on fire. The piston moves up, but not as much – and then a spark plug ignites the fuel, which explodes, pushes the piston, and so on.
  • Now, in the SKYACTIV-X, Mazda uses the fuel-squeezing compression of a diesel engine, and the ignition by spark plug from a gasoline engine. And that, along with some other engine tweaking, and some extra clean-up of the exhaust – gets the benefits of both a diesel and a gasoline engine, in one engine.

(Visual learners – you can watch Mazda’s version of Engine 101.)

And those benefits would be:  more power (like a diesel) – better fuel-efficiency (like a gasoline engine) – smooth, quick response when you put your foot on the gas (combination of both) – and, you fill up as always, at your local gas station.

So while we’re waiting for the nuclear fusion powered cars of the future, it turns out the trusty internal combustion engine has still got plenty up its (cylinder) sleeve.  Or as Mark Twain once said: “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

New composite bodies take pole position in NASCAR

After Tyler Reddick won this year’s NASCAR Xfinity Series’ MoneyLion 300 at Talladega Superspeedway – he figured that a year ago, if he’d driven the same track, the same way, he would have lost.

That’s because last year he was driving a steel body car, and this year?  NASCAR’s new carbon fiber composite car.  So early in the race, when Reddick had a close encounter with the wall, as he told Autoweek:  “It hurt the car pretty bad.  I’m not sure if the steel body would have handled that as well as the composite.”

His crew chief was sure though.  Here’s how Randy Burnett broke it down for Autoweek:  “If it were the ol’ steel body, it would have done more damage and hurt us more. … I think the composite bodies are very durable.  Same thing when he won the championship last year.  He kept hitting the wall at Homestead and you can’t do that with a steel body.

“With the old car, that contact would have destroyed the car and gave a lot more work to do.”

The new car, which is now THE car for all of NASCAR’s XFINITY series races, looks like the old car – but instead of that old steel body riveted and welded together – this car body is assembled from 13 panels that basically snap together, and bolt onto the chassis.  As Reddick and Burnett can testify, the composite body is stronger.  It’s also lighter, and because it’s assembled in snap on/snap off panels – it’s a lot easier and faster to fix, in case you overdo your Darlington Stripe.

Ok, so now you’re wondering – what IS this composite car body all about?  For starters, we’re talking polymers (or to be old school about it, plastics).  But composite means we’ve got a mix of materials, so we bring in carbon fiber to reinforce that plastic.  And it’s not just any old plastic either.  This high-tech polymer is from a chemical family called epoxides (aka epoxy resin).  Epoxy keeps those fibers in place and produces a material that is lightweight and as strong as steel.  Then layer those sheets of carbon fiber, with the fibers of each sheet going in crisscross directions (for added strength).  Finally, you can laminate or “sandwich” those sheets between a material like fiberglass on the outside.  (And in the case of these cars, apparently there’s some Kevlar® in there too – which you know is tough, because it’s the stuff they make body armor from.)

The chemistry of all that (because that’s where the magic is) looks like this:  the carbon fiber itself is often made from polyacrylonitrile (PAN), which starts with the building block propylene.  The epoxy?  Also from the petrochemical propylene.  Fiberglass?  Glass fiber in epoxy.  And Kevlar®?  An aramid fiber, made from benzene and xylene.

And maybe that’s just right, that the new NASCAR cars are built out of materials made from petrochemicals, which come from petroleum (and natural gas).  After all, what makes NASCAR run is another petroleum product – gasoline.


Click here to read more about what’s new, what’s next and what it means for you.

Ralph Lauren’s New Polo is Made Entirely from Plastic Bottles

“Something old, something new, something green or white or blue.”

What is it?  Ok, there’s probably more than one answer to that – but the answer we’re thinking of – is the new Earth Polo.

(photo from Ralph Lauren)

That’s the new shirt from Ralph Lauren – which comes in white or green or two shades of blue (baby or navy).  Your new Earth Polo shirt is made entirely from old plastic bottles(about 12 of them).  But when that plastic is turned into yarn, it makes a soft, comfortable, moisture-wicking shirt (Ralph Lauren says that even some of the Polo team couldn’t tell which was the old fabric, and which was the new, made-from-plastics).

You can even recycle the shirt, when that time has come (though since RL makes a pretty good shirt, that time shouldn’t come for some time).  The company has committed to (re)using 170 million plastic bottles for its clothing, by the year 2025.

The plastic for these shirts, incidentally, comes through the First Mile initiative, which “captures” plastic, removing it from the trash and recycling it (while ensuring that the men and women who do the work are paid a living wage).  Call it PET* to Polo.  Polo, you know – PET, is the plastic used to make water bottles – and in turn, that plastic is made from the petrochemicals ethylene and xylene (which are produced from petroleum and natural gas).

If you’re wondering about the choice of colors, by the way, Ralph Lauren says that when you look at the Earth from space, those are the four colors you can see.  And in an added touch of “green”, Earth Polo is using a process that doesn’t use any water to apply its dyes.

You can see for yourself what the finished product looks like, in a store, of course – or by clicking over to  Earth Polo.


*“PET” being polyethylene terephthalate, so you can see why they shortened it.

STEM Experiment: Make Your Own Bouncy Balls

If your kids think that the idea of a STEM experiment, learning about polymers, sounds like life before Snapchat (aka, boring!), then we’ve got a word for you:  Boing!

Yep, we’ve got a DIY bouncy ball project for you (courtesy of the scientists who work in the Fun Department at Valero).  It’s quick too, so your kids will be out of the “lab” and into bouncing their new ball off the floor, the wall, the ceiling, in no time.

Here’s what you’ll need: 

  • White school glue (for a lot of us, that’d be Elmer’s – but any white glue will work) – 1 tablespoon.
  • Food coloring (you choose).
  • Borax powder (if you don’t have any already in the house, you can find it at almost any hardware store, grocery store (in the laundry detergent aisle), or those really big stores) – 1/2 teaspoon.
  • Cornstarch – 3 tablespoons.
  • Warm water – 4 tablespoons.
  • 2 cups (for mixing in) – small ones will do.

Here’s what you’ll do:

  • Mix the cornstarch, borax and warm water in cup #1.
  • Mix the glue and food coloring in cup #2.
  • Pour cup #1 into cup #2.
  • Stir, stir, stir until a slimy glob forms in the middle of the cup (But don’t stop yet! We’re not making slime today.)
  • Take the glob out of the cup (There will be some extra liquid left in the cup. That’s fine.) and roll it in your hands into a ball (it will be stretchy and stringy at first, then it comes together).  If it’s still a little wet, dry it with a paper towel.
  • And Boing! It’s a ball.

If you’d like to watch all that being done, before trying it yourself, here you go:  DIY Bouncy Ball.

The science of all that?  

A “polymer” is something made up of long chains of big molecules – in this case, the main ingredient of the glue, polyvinyl acetate (PVAc).  Those molecule “chains” can slide past each other, so you can pour the glue out of the bottle. 

That PVAc is the result of a couple chemistry reactions that begin with the petrochemical ethylene.  The ethylene is used to make a monomer called vinyl acetate, and that vinyl acetate is converted to POLYvinyl acetate (see what we did there?).

Chemistry tip: just add “poly” to the front of the monomer name and you have the polymer name.

But add borax to the polymer glue and you get slime, a sort of liquid, sort of solid.  That’s because the borax “ties” those big molecules together (a scientist would call that “cross-linking”) so they don’t slide anymore, they squish and squash.

Now add cornstarch, and you’re entering non-Newtonian fluid territory (very sciency stuff here).  The result?  Even more solid now, and less gooey – so you can form your slime into a ball.

And that same polymer principle (long, connected chains of molecules) is behind the many plastics we use every day – from the plastic used to make milk jugs, to the polymer fiber in outdoor rugs, to the plastics in our phone casing and keyboard, to the carbon fiber-reinforced plastics that airplanes and cars and bikes are built from.

Product                        Monomer                                            Polymer                       

Milk Jug                        ethylene                                              polyethylene

Outdoor Rug               propylene                                             polypropylene

Phones                          acrylonitrile-butadiene                     poly (acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene)

Carbon Fiber               acrylonitrile                                         polyacrylonitrile

Click here to read more about what’s new, what’s next and what it means for you.

New fabrics have the potential to replace greenhouses

Turns out that a nice set of threads isn’t just a good look for you or me – it’s pretty sharp on a cherry tree too.  And for that matter, a peach tree, an olive tree, a grape vine, a tomato plant, a head of lettuce.  All sorts of fruits and vegetables do better “dressed up.”

Granted, it’s not quite the same look.  These threads – are custom-made polymer fabrics, designed especially for all that grows down on the farm.

Take Protecta®, for instance.  That’s a fabric specially designed to protect (naturally) cherry trees, especially from rain, which can ruin the fruit.  Using a high-density polyethylene, a polymer made from the petrochemical ethylene, Protecta® is something like Gore-Tex® for trees:  it breathes, so the trees get air;  it lets through light (even Gore-Tex can’t do that) so the fruit can grow and ripen;  and, it blocks out almost all the rain (the trees DO need some water).  And the monofilament fiber is strong too (so it holds up to years of wind and rain and sun).

(Photo courtesy of Arrigoni)

…that’s what a Protecta®-protected orchard looks like from underneath.

And Arrigoni, the Italian company that turned polymers into protection for cherry trees, has a whole series of farm fabrics for various crops. They started out as a fabric company back in 1936 that specialized in weaving. Most of their fabrics, tape and netting is polyethylene and polypropylene – you guessed it, derived from the base petrochemicals ethylene and propylene. Each different type of fabric, tape or netting uses unique weave patterns to achieve the desired protection. Chemistry and plant haute couture!

They’ve got a fabric cover made from specially woven polyethylene tape that keeps the sun from scorching berry plants, like strawberries (which, incidentally account for about 70 percent of the berries grown worldwide).

(Photo courtesy of Arrigoni)

Worried about your wine grapes?  Arrigoni’s got high-density polyethylene nets that keep hail off the grapes, and protect against too much heat and sunlight.  There’s netting to protect ground crops like cabbage (from birds) and root crops like carrots (from bugs).

(Photo courtesy of Arrigoni)

It all falls under the heading of agrotextiles – which take the idea of a greenhouse, and bring it out into the fields:  polymer nets and sheeting on frames built up over trees – draped over grape vines – spread over ground crops.  Using fabrics woven from polymers (made from petrochemicals) protect plants, while allowing the necessary sunlight and water through.  And because the material is fabric, not glass – it’s possible to set up wherever crops are growing, and take down when it’s not needed, or to move elsewhere.

With more and more people to feed every year, protecting the food we grow is all the more important.  And thanks to the agrotextile industry, polymers are helping our cherry and peach and apple trees stay fruitful (and their crop counterparts on the ground too).

Dine under water with incredible views beneath the ocean surface

At the Norwegian restaurant Under, if you ask for a table by the window…

(Photo Courtesy of Under)
(Photo Courtesy of Under)

…that’s your view.  And “that” – would be the North Sea, from about 16 feet below the surface.

The “secret sauce” at Under is acrylic plastic – not on your fish (and yes, it IS a seafood restaurant) – but in that 13 foot-high window (13 by 36, by the way, so that’s a LOT of acrylic).

An American company, Reynolds Polymer Technology, built the window – using acrylic (specifically, polymethyl methacrylate, or PMMA) because it was strong enough to survive North Sea waves and weather, and clear enough to show off that incredible view.

And the “secret sauce” in PMMA – is either the petrochemical ethylene or propylene.  Refined from petroleum (or natural gas), ethylene or propylene is the starting point for a series of chemical reactions that wind up in this case, producing a 13-foot tall acrylic window.

Now you can’t point out that window at a passing crab or fish, and tell your server, “I’ll have that one.”  But you might well see crabs and lobsters, dogfish and urchins, pollack and cod, and maybe a wrasse or two, all swimming just on the other side of the window.  And what you see today, might be on someone else’s plate the next day.

If you’d like to see Under for yourself, you’ll find it in Lindesnes, which is the southern tip of Norway; here’s the link for booking a table.  Word is though, they’re full up into August.  But you know what they say about autumn in Norway…

New kayak is made completely from recycled plastic recovered from the ocean

Here’s the story of a company that is putting plastic INTO the ocean.  And – it’s a good thing.

Because the plastic that Odyssey Innovation puts into the water – is in the form of a kayak.  AND (second good thing) – that plastic used to make the kayak is recycled plastic trash that has been in the ocean.

(Courtesy of Odyssey Innovation)

So plastic trash out of the water – recycled-plastic-turned-into-kayak back in the water.  That’s nicely done.

This story started with a kayak too (the non-plastic variety).   Rob Thompson, founder of Odyssey (based in Cornwall, in the UK) was out on the water in his kayak, for a clean-up-the ocean-day.  And when he got back on shore, he thought there must be something to do with the plastics they’d brought in – instead of just tossing on land, everything they’d collected on water).

Fast forward through a couple of years spent researching, experimenting, trial and erroring – and Odyssey’s first recycled plastic kayak hit the water.  Today, they are out regularly, collecting plastic that’s wound up in the ocean and bringing it in for recycling.  Some of the plastic is polyethylene (from ethylene), which is recycled into high-density polyethylene and used to make their kayaks.  Other plastic, such as polypropylene and PET, not suitable for that purpose, gets turned into other things.

We like the way Odyssey puts it on their website:  “Plastics from the Ocean should be seen as a resource.  It’s unacceptable to remove this resource from our Oceans and bury or incinerate it if it can be recycled.”  As Rob Thompson told Forbes Magazine earlier this year:  “It’s absolutely crazy, in a society, that you end up with a resource causing an environmental problem.”

Agreed.  And taking plastic trash out of the ocean – putting that plastic back in the water as a kayak – that’s a creative (re)use of a valuable resource.

(A resource, by the way, which originally comes from petrochemicals — produced from either petroleum or natural gas.  Plastic bottles, for instance, are often made from PET (polyethylene terephthalate), which is made from petrochemicals, ethylene and xylene.  Fishing nets, which too often end up as floating trash, those are generally made of polyethylene, the polymer made from ethylene, or nylon, a polymer that starts with the petrochemical benzene.)

Oh, if you’re interested, you can check out Odyssey’s kayaks for yourself.

3D printing techniques could revolutionize rhinoplasty

More than two hundred thousand of us last year, made a doctor’s visit for a bit of rhinoplasty – or as it’s more commonly called, a nose job.

It is a job too.  They cut, they stitch, they take out, they put in.

Here’s how the doctors at the Mayo Clinic describe it:  “Rhinoplasty may be done inside your nose or through a small external cut at the base of your nose … Your surgeon will likely readjust the bone and cartilage underneath your skin … For small changes, the surgeon may use cartilage taken from deeper inside your nose or from your ear.  For larger changes, the surgeon can use cartilage from your rib, implants or bone from other parts of your body.  After these changes are made, the surgeon places the nose’s skin and tissue back and stitches the incisions in your nose.”

Or as we’d describe that:  Ouch!

So here’s a piece of good news for your nose – we might able to say good bye to those scalpels and sutures in the future.

Scientists at two universities in Southern California (Occidental and UC Irvine) teamed up to experiment with using electricity (low dose) to “soften” the collagen in our nose (which is a fiber that gives shape to cartilage).  After a few minutes of that, on goes a 3D-printed mold (the kind generally made from petrochemical-derived polymers like polyacrylates from propylene), made to the shape of the new nose-to-be.  Turn off the current, take off the mold, give the cartilage a bit to resolidify – and, voilà.  No cutting or scraping or sewing.  Just a new nose.

So far, the new procedure is promising, but it is also still in the let’s-test-this-out-first stage – so don’t call to book your procedure just yet.

By the way, if you’re wondering why a nose job is rhinoplasty and does that have anything to do with rhinoceroses, we’ve got that for you:  “rhino”, goes back to the Greek, and of course means, nose (“plasty” is the surgery part).  And, if you looked like this…

…well, the other kids might have called you Rhino too.

Merchant Ships Ready to Set Sail with Cleaner Fuel Standards

Even though almost three-quarters of the planet is covered in water, there are a LOT of ships out there on that water.

That’s more than 53,000 merchant ships, not to mention thousands of warships and countless small boats.  But sail boats aside, just about all of those ships have engines, and most of those engines run on diesel fuel.

By one estimate, even though ship fuel accounts for about 7 percent of the total used for transportation (land, air and sea) – it also accounts for about 90 percent of the sulfur dioxide emissions from transportation.  And that – makes new rules about cleaner fuels for ships, big news for all of us.

Starting next year, big ships have to use fuel with a lower (much lower, from 3.5 to .5 percent) sulfur content – or a ship has to be equipped with scrubbers, to clean its exhaust before it hits the outside air.  The project is IMO 2020 – and this move to cleaner fuel is an agreement signed on to by more than 170 countries (“IMO” stands for International Maritime Organization).

Altogether, this affects ships that currently use about 3 million barrels of fuel every day – so that’s a lot of new and improved fuel to bring on line.

Fortunately, along with shipping companies, U.S. refineries have been preparing for IMO 2020 as well – and they are ready to meet the demand for cleaner fuel at sea (as they’ve worked to produce cleaner fuels for transportation on land and in the air as well.  In fact, the new fuel ships will be using will be more like the cleaner diesel that already runs today’s trucks).

As the Coalition for American Energy Security put it, “The U.S. refining sector is prepared to meet demand for low-sulfur fuel.  The investments made by U.S. energy producers will ensure that timely implementation of the IMO standards will provide greater energy security…These standards give the U.S. a significant advantage over foreign oil producers whose nations haven’t made necessary infrastructure investments.”

And, that ocean air will smell a little saltier, come 2020.

3D Printing Lets Manufacturers Efficiently Create Replacement Parts for Classic Cars

Maybe you’re the kind of person who knows why a ’64 Mustang is a big deal.

(That was the year Ford introduced the Mustang.)

Or the kind of person who knows what made the ’63 Chevy Corvette Sting Ray so distinctive?

(The split-window in the back.)

Or, if someone were to ask you what car Elvis bought in 1958 – you’d know the answer was a BMW 507 (which he picked up in Germany while doing his tour of duty in the Army).  This is what it looked like 5 years ago, by the way…

(Photo Courtesy of BMW)

But whatever kind of old car you like, and like to work on – we’ve got a new tool for your workshop.  A 3D printer.  Yes, a printer.

Because now, you can print parts for old cars.  In fact, when BMW was restoring Elvis’s old ride – they printed up some of those parts.  (Even BMW didn’t have parts anymore for a 507 from the ‘50s.)   And it all turned out pretty well we’d say…

(Photo Courtesy of BMW)

That’s Elvis’s car now, after the BMW mechanics (and 3D printers) worked on it.

Lots of car makers are using 3D printed parts in their new cars these days – Ford and Mercedes-Benz, Audi and GM, even Rolls Royce.  But the big deal about printing parts for older cars – is that sometimes a part just isn’t available anymore, or a replacement part would have to be custom-made ($$$).

DId you know…

If you’re curious about what materials those 3D printers are using, the answer is:  lots of different materials.  But like today’s new cars, polymers (aka plastic) are often the raw material.  That could be plastic – as in ABS, the plastic based on the petrochemicals, ethylene, propylene, butadiene and benzene – or your polypropylene gas tank made from propylene.  And that could be plastic – as in carbon-fiber composite, made from the petrochemical propylene – used to produce the body panels and structural components of a car.

We’re going to borrow a bit of the story here from the folks who cover this story regularly at 3D Printing Industry:

Talking about a Mercedes project to print replacement parts for its 1950s-era 300 SL Coupe, 3D explains:  “One of the benefits of 3D printing is that it allows manufacturing directly from CAD [Computer-Aided Design] models without the need for the task-specific toolset.

“Using old 3D designs where available or by creating new ones from old 2D drawings, Daimler Groups has manufactured the obsolete parts…”

Porsche also is using 3D printing to make spare parts for its Classic cars (meaning older cars, and older means back as far as 1948) – to avoid the cost of stockpiling extra parts for when and if they are needed, or the cost of tooling up to make a spare part long after they’ve stopped making the original car.

How far can this go?  Here’s what the motorheads at Popular Mechanic think:

“…now shops can scan entire irreplaceable cars for reference and use that information to print identical replacement parts in case of catastrophe.  This ability means that they could also choose to print all the parts to create an exact clone of a priceless gem.”


And while that’s a high-end service now, the 3D printers, the scanners, the CAD programs – it’s all out there, and it only gets less-expensive and more available.  Who knows, maybe one day, your next car buying experience will be:  “Alexa, print me a car.”

Click here to read more about what’s new, what’s next and what it means for you.

New Helmet Technology to Protect Our Heroes

How’s your Star Wars IQ?

Recognize this line?  “As you wish.”


How about this one:  “He’s no good to me dead.”

Ok, if THAT didn’t give it away, see if this reminds you of anyone…

(Photo from HiConsumption)

No, that isn’t “his” helmet, but this helmet reminds us of Boba Fett.  (Those lines WERE his lines though – two out of his four lines in The Empire Strikes Back.)

But while this helmet, made by DEVTAC, a Japanese company – would look at home on Boba Fett – in fact, it’s out on our planet today.

Here’s what its creators have to say about it:

  • The Kevlar® (a polymer, made from the petrochemicals benzene and xylene)-reinforced ballistic version can stop a round from a .44 Magnum.
  • You can customize the helmet with a heads-up display (with information like maps or troop locations). And there’s a ventilation system, plus fan, to keep the polycarbonate (benzene again, along with propylene through the Cumene Process) lenses from fogging up.
  • You can attach an infrared camera for night-vision capability.
  • It uses powerful magnets for quick on-off, and easy removal of detachable armor plates (to turn the full-on helmet into just a face mask, or vice versa as needed).
  • And yes, it DOES make you look like the warrior of the future.

Did You Know?

Kevlar® is made from aramid fiber, which is made from benzene and xylene, two key petrochemicals – and petrochemicals, are the chemicals produced by breaking apart or physically separating molecules found in petroleum or natural gas.  So while Kevlar® is not found in nature, it IS produced from what nature has given us.

At the moment, if you saw one of these, it’d most likely be on a SWAT team officer or maybe special operations forces – but Boba Fett-style gear does seem to be where warfare is headed (and we told you earlier this year about the “Iron Man” suit being developed by the U.S. military).

Meantime, if all this has you jonesing for more Boba Fett, you might want to check out the Boba Fett Fan Club (which is, yes, a real thing).

From Farm to Pint Glass: What Goes Into Making Your Beer

What goes into beer?  That can be as simple as 1, 2, 3, 4:

  1. Barley (or some other grain)
  2. water
  3. hops
  4. yeast.

(Ok, unless you’re the kind of person who likes your beer with “overt but not overbearing banana and clove”, or maybe “notes of muted fleshy stone fruit and subtle guava.”  And yes, those ARE descriptions of real beers.  We’ll let them go unnamed though;  it’s better for all of us that way.)

Making beer from even those simple ingredients though – that does take a little something extra.  Starting with…

This is the farm, that grew the grains (and hops), that make our beer.

From tilling, to plowing, from fertilizing and finally, harvesting the various grains and hops that go into our beer – it takes fuel to run the tractors and other equipment, and odds are, that fuel is diesel.

This is the brewery, that mashed (and lautered and hopped and fermented) the grains, that grew on the farm, that make our beer.

All those processes require a lot of heating and cooling that goes on, which takes energy, which takes fuel (like natural gas).

These are the bottles (and cans and kegs), that hold the beer, that the brewery brewed, from the grains that grew on the farm, that make our beer.

Making glass bottles, aluminum cans, steel (or plastic) kegs – that also takes plenty of energy (more natural gas).

These are trucks, that haul the bottles (and cans and kegs), that hold the beer, that the brewery brewed, from the grains that grew on the farm, that make our beer.

Now, we’ve got all those cases and cases (or kegs) of beer in cans and bottles at the brewery.  Getting that beer to us?  The trusty beer truck, running on equally trusty diesel fuel.

Now, if you’re sensing a theme here (besides beer), you’re right.  Making and moving beer, depends on fuels made from petroleum (like diesel) and natural gas (like natural gas).

And, if you want to go all nerdy about it, petrochemicals made from petroleum and natural gas, are also used to make the cool reverse osmosis membranes that are sometimes used to filter the water used for beer – made from polymers made from petrochemicals.

Did You Know?

Modern reverse osmosis membranes for purified water are composites that include a polyamide and a polyethersulfone, two high-tech engineered plastics.  The polyamide component is made from a special type of nylon that is reacted with polyethylene glycol. The nylon component begins with benzene and the polyethylene glycol with ethylene.  Polyethersulfone is a high-performance polymer that also starts with benzene (isn’t benzene versatile?) to produce the sulfone part of the molecule.  Benzene and propylene are reacted in the important Cumene Process to make phenol and acetone, which are used to make the ether part of the polyethersulfone molecule.  Thank goodness chemists can make sense of all this!

And this is you, enjoying your beer, that came on the truck, in a bottle (or can or keg), that the brewery brewed, from the grains that grew on the farm, that make our beer.

Aston Martin uses 3D-printing and aerospace tech to build their new concept car

Rotating license plates, oil slicks and smoke screens, bullet-proof screen in the back and machine guns in the front – and, an ejector seat.  Oh yeah, that’s James Bond’s classic Aston Martin.

But now Aston Martin is back with something that’s just about as cool – a 3D-printed car.  Ok, not the entire car.  But a lot of it.

And this is no ordinary car (well, being an Aston Martin, you probably figured that already).

(Photo from Aston Martin)

You can’t see it from that view, but a good bit of the inside is printed, including the center console (which is half the weight of a conventionally-made console).  The car is built around a carbon fiber structure, which cuts the weight of the car even more.  (And those lighter materials are made possible in the first place, by petrochemical-made polymers.)

Did You Know?

Carbon fiber is a simple name for a very high-tech material.  First, they take propylene and mix it with ammonia and air to convert it to acrylonitrile.  Then, they polymerize the acrylonitrile to make polyacrylonitrile (PAN) fiber – see how adding the “poly” to acrylonitrile means that it’s now a plastic?  After that, the PAN fiber is subjected to very high temperature without oxygen (so it doesn’t burn, and we’ll learn more about pyrolysis later), which creates a special new carbon fiber that when placed in an epoxy a certain way, makes a material that is as strong as steel, but a fraction of the weight.  Oh yeah, that epoxy is also made from a petrochemical called propylene.

Aston Martin hasn’t said yet (the car is still in the concept stage) how fast it will be, but when Car and Driver asked how it would stack up to 789 horsepower of the McLaren Senna – Aston Martin said, yeah, its new car’s twin-turbo V-6 (with hybrid assistance) would probably be at least as powerful.  (The new Aston Martin doesn’t make smoke screens or oil slicks, even James Bond probably wouldn’t need them, not with that kind of horsepower.)

Here’s a couple of other cool things about the new ride.  Aston Martin has borrowed some tech from the aerospace industry, to make a rear wing for the car that can “flex” without any moving parts – to whatever angle minimizes drag and turbulence.  Oh, and the new car will have Castrol’s new 90-second oil change system!

If you’re curious about what Bond’s original Aston Martin looked like, by the way, it looked like this:

(Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

You can’t buy that one;  it’s sitting in a Dutch museum.  And Aston Martin only plans to make 500 of the new ones, so if you’re interested, you might want to act sooner rather than later.

Just ask for “An Aston Martin.  Printed, not welded.”  Or something like that.

Merebeth Veit logs over 60,000 miles a year as a “pet mover”

What do a French bulldog, a guinea pig, an Angora rabbit, a turtle, a hamster – and a cat named Traveller – all have in common?

Merebeth Veit’s car.

Veit is a pet mover.  Let’s say a pet owner has to move across country for a new job, or sometimes a new deployment (for families in the military).  Or sometimes, a pet owner-to-be finds their new pet online, in a different city or different state.  Transactions might be virtual these days, but to get a new pet to a new owner – that takes an actual car and driver, like Merebeth Veit.

All of which adds up to about 60,000 miles a year on the road – moving about 100 pets a year from Point A to Point B.  (Her starting point is in South Carolina, but she’s covered most of the Continental United States.  At last count, only Montana, Washington and Oregon weren’t on her list.  Yet.)

Here’s an example:

“A young couple from San Francisco found a [French bulldog] online.  He was at an animal rescue center in St. Louis, so they employed Merebeth to transport him by car to their home in California. .. Together they traveled on a road trip through Colorado, Utah and northern Nevada.”

(Picture by Merebeth Veit, from BBC News.)

Of course, there is an occupational hazard to her job (ok, two hazards:  a cat bit her once).

“’I got so attached to that dog,’ says Merebeth, wistfully.  ‘I’ve got a ton of pictures of him – super sweet. … After three nights traveling together I was so in love.  It’s happened a few times.’”


But as much as she cares for the animals, she likes the travel just as much.  In fact, if there’s a place she’s never been and wants to see, she’ll just find a pet who needs to go there.  So long as the end of the journey is the end of a road, Merebeth Veit is off on a road trip.

As she told the BBC, “It’s a win-win, you see … I love animals and I love to drive. … I created my dream job: pet transporter.”

And if you’ve got a pet who needs a ride – you can find Merebeth Veit on uShip.

Click here to read more about what’s new, what’s next and what it means for you.

The refabricator turns plastic waste into raw material for 3D printing — in space

Have you seen “The Refabricator” yet?

We won’t tell anybody, but if you HAVE seen it – that probably makes you a science geek.  Because “The Refabricator” isn’t a science fiction series streaming on Netflix – it’s a science fact, on board the International Space Station.

In fact, The Refabricator IS a refabricator.

(Photo from NASA)

And WHAT, you ask, does a refabricator do?

It’s a combination of a plastic recycling machine and a 3D-printer:  the astronauts feed in plastic waste – the Refabricator melts that down – and turns it into “high quality” filament (this is NASA, after all, so not just any filament will do).  Then the astronauts can use that, to print something they need.

A quick note…

Almost all plastic, of any kind, used for anything – starts with petrochemicals.  In this case, plastic bags generally are made from polyethylene or polypropylene, which is made from the petrochemical, ethylene or propylene (ok, that was pretty obvious).  And foam?  Most commonly, that’s made from polystyrene, which in turn is made from the petrochemical, benzene (sorry, benzene is reacted with ethylene to make ethylbenzene, then styrene, which is then converted to polystyrene. But a direct conversion of benzene would have been too easy.  Isn’t chemistry fun?).

So, for example, the plastic bags and foam that much of their supplies come packed in?

(Photo from NASA)

You could send it back down to Earth, but at a shipping cost around $10,000 a pound – well, maybe not.  And on the other hand, when you need something, like a new spork, you don’t want to be calling Mission Control every time.

The Refabricator can turn those into a plastic syringe, a custom-made wrench, a space spork, whatever you can print on a 3D-printer.  And in theory, they can do that over and over and over again (in fact, the Refabricator is a test of that theory – to see how many times you can recycle the same plastic before it starts to degrade).

Recycling plastic is cool and responsible and important, of course – but on the International Space Station, recycling is even more all of those things.

For starters, there isn’t much space up there in space – it’s tight quarters inside the space station, so you don’t want to just store the recycling.

The Refabricator could be the solution to both problems.  Need to take out the recycling? – pop it into the Refabricator.  Need a new tool? – print one up on the Refabricator.

Important as it is on the space station, gear like the Refabricator could be an essential part of more distant space missions – like a voyage to Mars, where there might be years between one mission and the next.  And one day, we might even see Refabricators here on Earth (drop off your plastic bottles on one trip to the grocery store – and next time, you might pick them up again, as your six-pack of Aquafina).

By the way, there actually IS a Refabricator movie (ok, a short – it’s only 3-and-a-half minutes long), and on this NASA ScienceCast you can take a look for yourself.  (Maybe the tag line for this show should be:  “The Refabricator:  because there are no blue bins in outer space.”)

Click here to read more about what’s new, what’s next and what it means for you.

“You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em”… (Yep, the folding phone is here.)

It was all over this year’s CES, the big Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

 Folding in this case, means a folding screen.  We’ve seen folding phones before, of course (but read down for some news about a return of the all-time classic flip phone).

Now we’re talking about a fold-up smartphone.  Like this…

…that’s the FlexPai, from Royole – and that phone, you could order right now (though we’re not saying you should).  From a more familiar name, Samsung has now introduced the Galaxy Fold – which opens from phone (that screen is on the “outside”) to phablet (this screen is on the inside, like opening a book).  Huawei has the Mate X (and like the FlexPai, the big screen is on the “outside”, like the front and back cover of a book).  There’s even talk about a foldable iPhone – one of these days.

And what makes ANYBODY’S folding phone possible?  Some really smart engineers – and some very special polymers called polyimides, produced from petrochemicals.  [Polymers are long strings of molecules and each individual molecular unit in the polymer comes from a reactive molecule called a monomer.]

What makes these special polyimides so strong AND flexible are very complex monomers based on one or more benzene rings [that’s a chemical “ring”, by the way, not a “one ring to rule them all” sort of ring], which makes them perfect for a folding screen (and which also makes them a lot more likely to survive your cool new phone falling out of your pocket onto some strong, inflexible concrete sidewalk).

And those polymers [try saying, “poly (4,4’-oxydiphenylamine pyromellitimide)” three times.  Ok, try saying it just once!] are made from petrochemicals like benzene, toluene and xylene – which in turn are made from petroleum and natural gas.

So what else can you do with those polymers.  Well, the original cool flip phone, Motorola’s Razr…

…is coming back – but this time the “cool”, isn’t a folding phone, it’ll be a folding screen.

But maybe you want to go big.  Not just a phone.  Not even a phablet.  So how about one of the big hits of this year’s CES, literally big – a 65-inch TV that rolls up like a window shade.

(In the front, that’s the TV in its box.  On the left, the partially “unfurled” TV.  And on the right, that’s 65 inches of viewing pleasure.)

So — want to watch the last season of Game of Thrones?  Pull up that big OLED screen (OLED stands for organic light emitting diode, a whole new ball game for advanced TVs).  Need to take a deep breath after the latest adventures of the Mother of Dragons?  Roll it back down and out of the way until next week (in case a big black square isn’t your idea of wall décor).  And don’t worry, you don’t do it by hand, though you can just tell it to roll up (which will make an excellent party trick, once).


[And if you think the polymer for polyamide-based FlexPai is complex, try adding an amide to your imide!  Now you have a polyamide-imide called poly(biphenyl tetracarboxylic acid dianhydride – phenylene diamine).  We won’t even ask you to say that once.  We’ll just say “thank you, chemistry majors” – for having figured it out, and figured out what to do with it.]

LG makes that roll-up TV, and you can watch it roll (though you’ll have to sit through about 40 seconds that might remind of the opening of 2001:  A Space Odyssey.  Be patient though.  It rolls.)

And since the TV screen rolls up (or down) into a box (on the scale of a big soundbar), it could be portable, so you could pick up your TV and move it to whatever room you want to watch in (while you’re saving up to buy one for each room, of course).

What makes all this cool stuff possible?  Those same petrochemicals – benzene, toluene and xylene – that let you stash a phablet in your pocket.  Not bad for a barrel of oil.  And who knows what’s down the road, or on the road?  Fold-up cars, anyone?

Debunking the myths: 5 facts about credit cards

1) Myth: Applying for a credit card only affects your credit score if you use the card.

Fact: Applying for new credit comprises 10 percent of your credit score. It doesn’t matter if you’re approved for the card or if you use it; it’s the inquiry that counts. Frequently applying for new credit can hurt your credit score, so make sure you really need that new card before you apply for it.

2) Myth: Paying less than the minimum payment on your credit card bill doesn’t count as a missed payment.

Fact: If you don’t pay the total minimum payment on your credit card bill, your credit card company may report it as a missed payment. This can bring down your credit score and make it more difficult to qualify for credit in the future. Check your statement for the minimum amount due, and be sure to pay it on time to keep your account current. And remember: Paying more than the minimum amount due is a great way to pay down your debt.

3) Myth: A high credit card limit can be a bad thing.

Fact: Not necessarily. If you manage your credit cards wisely, a high credit limit can be advantageous. Thirty percent of your credit score is based on your debt-to-credit ratio (the amount you owe in proportion to your total credit limit). If you have a high credit limit and you keep your balances low, your debt-to-credit ratio is also low, which can help your credit score.

4) Myth: You must carry a balance on your credit cards to build a credit history.

Fact: Credit cards are great tools for building your credit history, and you don’t need to carry an unpaid balance to do so. Your best strategy is to use your credit cards and pay off the bill in full each month, so you keep your overall debt-to-credit limit ratio low.

5) Myth: The more credit cards you have, the better.

Fact: Having more credit cards isn’t necessarily better. Ten percent of your credit score is determined by the type of credit you have. For example, you may have student loans, a mortgage and credit cards. Credit agencies look for a good mix. If all you have is credit cards, you may not help your score.

Now that you have a good handle on the basic facts about credit cards—as well as the most common misconceptions—you have the tools to better manage your credit and build a strong credit history. If you’re considering a credit card, learn more about Bank of America’s credit card options.